‘Staggering number’ of deaths
On the afternoon of May 24, barangay tanod or village watchman Boyet Tuando of San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, died in a seedy motel after an encounter with the local police.
The cops’ story: Tuando, whom they tagged as a suspect for attempted rape, tried to fight back during the entrapment operation — “nanlaban” — hence the fatal shooting.
But that claim soon withered when CCTV footage surfaced showing that the unarmed Tuando had been handcuffed and shoved into a red SUV by men in civilian clothes — over an hour before the police operation took place.
Tuando’s family has rejected the police account and is demanding justice. But that call is a long shot; more likely, the case will end up the same way thousands of other similar incidents have fared under the Duterte administration’s war on drugs and crime — nowhere.
As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported during the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March this year, only one case has been subjected to investigation and prosecution in the Philippines despite serious allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings.
Like a virus, the official “nanlaban” narrative has also jumped from one target species to another, mutating from the drug war to a wider arena as it is now being used to absolve authorities of any responsibility for human rights violations involving other sectors such as farmers, activists and indigenous peoples.
By the count of Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal author of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill that was recently approved on final reading at the House of Representatives, 134 human rights activists/advocates have been killed since President Duterte assumed office in 2016.
The alarming body count and the climate of unchecked violence have prompted the rare issuance of a joint call by 11 UN special rapporteurs — “an unusually large group of experts,” noted The New York Times — for the United Nations to inquire into the “staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings” in the Philippines.
The UN experts, including Agnes Callamard who has long earned the ire of Mr. Duterte, last week urged the UNHRC, which will meet later this month, to conduct an independent investigation into “the sharp deterioration in the situation of human rights across the country, including sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights.”
“In the past three years, we have repeatedly brought to the attention of the Government cases alleging a range of gross human rights violations, such as extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, including of children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, trade union and land right activists,” they said. “The Government has shown no indication that they will step up to fulfil their obligation to conduct prompt and full investigations into these cases, and to hold perpetrators accountable in order to do justice for victims and to prevent reoccurrence of violations.”
Predictably, the statement has been met with raised hackles at the Palace, with presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo calling it “intellectually challenged” and “an outrageous interference [into] Philippine sovereignty.”
The administration continues to insist on the implausible scenario that the more than 5,000 dead drug suspects in the police files were supposedly killed because every single one of them put up a fight during drug raids.
The call to probe such deaths, said the Department of Foreign Affairs, is being made “in bad faith by parties who want to undermine domestic processes and spread disinformation, on the basis of one-sided reports coming from questionable sources.”
But, as the UNHRC officials have pointed out, they have raised their concerns with the Duterte administration 33 times over the last three years.
None of those pleas for an investigation into the killings have resulted in the serious prosecution of erring policemen, or of the slew of vigilantes roaming the land and assassinating not only drug suspects but also, increasingly, activists.
Instead, rather than rethinking the bloody campaign or recalibrating its methods, President Duterte vowed during his last State of the Nation Address that the drug war “will be as relentless and chilling… as on the day it began.”
Tuando and his family, and the thousands of brutalized, mostly impoverished Filipinos like them and the many more sure to shed their blood in this relentless environment of impunity, will have to wait longer for the justice and accountability they deserve.
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