A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week claimed that Filipino children have been traumatized, some even became homeless, because of the Philippine government’s “war on drugs.”
“You owe it to these children to launch an investigation,” Laila Matar, deputy director of HRW, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council during the launch of the report on May 27.
The 48-page report titled “‘Our Happy Family Is Gone’: Impact of the ‘War on Drugs’ on Children in the Philippines’” came weeks before the U.N. Human Rights Council convene to release a report on human rights in the Philippines.
The HRW report covers cases documented between 2016 to 2018.
But Carlos Conde, HRW’s Philippine researcher, claimed that there has been no halt to the killings since quarantine measures were imposed in March to contain the spread of the new coronavirus disease.
Phil Robertson, HRW deputy director for Asia, said 101 children were killed, “either directly or in what the government calls ‘collateral damage,’” in the period covered by the report.
“Even that number is not the full picture,” said Robertson in an online media briefing, citing new cases of children killed in 2019 and 2020.
Conde, citing official government count of drug suspects killed in police operations, said most of the 5,601 victims of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs were male and family breadwinners.
Given Philippine population estimates of families having between two to five children, just the official figure translates into between 10,000 to 20,000 orphans.
Robertson and Conde also pointed out that there is another figure, one that the government once included but later dropped from its drug war statistics.
Rights workers in the Philippines say that inclusion of “deaths under investigation” would push the figure of drug war killings to 27,000.
The term refers to executions perpetrated by “unknown” suspects, often tagged as “vigilantes” by police officials, an amorphous group with “the magical skill of slipping in and out of crowded areas without being spotted by the police.”
Conde interviewed 50 people, including orphans and wives and partners of victims of the “drug war” for the report.
“The government has written off these children and their families,” Conde said.
He claimed that there is no single specific program geared for these families, and aside from some help with burial expenses, there has been no help from the government.
Children need counselling to deal with trauma. Some have stopped school to augment the family income. Some are living on the streets, Conde added.
“Everyone has been driven deeper into poverty,” he said.
“Filipino children have suffered horribly from President Duterte’s decision to unleash the police and their hit men against suspected drug users,” Conde said.
“The government needs to stop this endless violence that is upending children’s lives and direct assistance to the children harmed,” he added.
One of the children, Jennifer, who was 12 years old when she saw policemen kill her father, made the cover of the report graphic.
It is a grim retelling in red and black of the killing and how it has defined her life.
“I do not feel like eating. I have trouble sleeping,” she said in a video accompanying the report’s release.
She has a thick album of drawings, part of psychosocial services offered by a church-based organization. “But I can never complete a drawing of a family,” the child said.
Most of the drug war victims come from poor families. Their deaths have just tightened the bars of poverty and hunger.
One teenage orphan, Robert, stopped school to work as a trash collector to provide for the needs of his siblings. They all live on the streets, taking shelter in the shadows under the awnings of stores.
“I became a father to my siblings,” said the 13-year-old youth.
The ongoing quarantine only makes families of drug war victims more vulnerable, said Conde.
Livelihoods have suffered because neighbors have lost jobs and purchasing power.
Robert and others made homeless by the loss of the family breadwinner face brutal police punishment for any violations of quarantine rules.
Most families, faced by regular sneers of Duterte on national television and his promises to protect police charged for drug war killings, hesitate to approach government for help because of the stigma.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 people for the report — 10 children, 23 parents, relatives, or guardians, and 16 government officials, nongovernmental organization staff members, and community leaders.
The group documented the impact of 23 “drug war” killings on the victims’ families in six cities and provinces, including Metro Manila.
Conde said one top government official acknowledged that Duterte and his Cabinet never had a discussion on the plight of the drug war orphans.
Absence of accountability
Robertson said the clear absence of political will in the government to stop the bloodshed and hold killers accountable makes external pressure critical.
He said only in one case, that of teenager Kian de los Santos, have police been convicted for murder.
“And that was because his family moved quickly to get hold of the video showing police dragging Kian through alleys,” said Robertson.
He said the police later asked the village officials to destroy CCTV footage of the incident, a pattern in other cases across the national capital region.
Many of those interviewed said police asked cursory questions and then never followed up their investigation.
“There is not even a pretense of an investigation,” said Robertson, adding that the drug war policy comes from the top.
He cited Duterte’s campaign promise to launch a hunt for drug suspects and kill them once he becomes president.
“That is exactly what he has done,” Robertson said, also noting Duterte’s public remarks likening drug addicts to zombies who need to be slaughtered.
“There is no accountability of perpetrators and no justice for victims at the domestic level,” said Matar. “There is a deliberate policy and an intention to protect killers,” she added.
Matar said the government has undermined institutions that can exact accountability, noting blocks of probes in Congress and the Supreme Court.
She said it is the president himself who leads efforts to shield the government from accountability.
There is “aggressive disdain” for human rights experts and critics and a slew of harassment, intimidation and arrests aimed at weakening rights watchdogs in the country.
She also cited the Philippines’ withdrawal from the International Criminal Court after it opened in February 2018 a preliminary examination into drug war complaints.
In June 2019, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution requesting the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a comprehensive report about the human rights situation in the Philippines.
After losing the U.N. Human Rights Council vote despite sending numerous memos and notes to country members, Duterte ordered a halt to loans and grants transacted with states that voted for Iceland’s resolution.
The adoption of the Iceland resolution was “a first glimpse of hope and justice,” said the HRW’s Matar.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to roll out its report during the 44th session of the Human Rights Council on June 22.
“The report is a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough to assign accountability,” Matar said, insisting on the need for a Council-sanctioned independent investigation into drug war killings.
While Duterte has threatened to block U.N. rights experts from going to the Philippines, Matar said other rights probes have been completed under similar conditions.
“The U.N. Human Rights Council should create an international inquiry and press the Philippine government to end its deadly ‘drug war,’” said Conde.
“Without action now, an entire generation of Filipino children will be victimized by the violence of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign,” he added.