Facing UN review, Philippine officials want to shift focus away from drug war deaths

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 18) — With an upcoming UN review of the human rights situation in the Philippines, government officials are renewing their call to shift focus away from the death toll of its drug war and towards its other “achievements.”

But the body count from the anti-drug campaign could not escape scrutiny as the government's main drug war death toll — called "Real Numbers" — and the police's tally do not match. Human rights groups have cited even higher numbers of a scale that they say reaches the threshold of crimes against humanity.

Latest data consolidated from various government agencies including the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) presented during the Real Numbers briefing show that 5,526 drug suspects were killed in anti-illegal drug operations from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2019. During the same period, 193,086 drug suspects were arrested and there were 134,583 anti-drug operations.

However, PNP chief Oscar Albayalde told CNN Philippines' The Source that there have been 6,739 people killed in drug operations, while 248,359 have been arrested.

Albayalde also said that they have filed 376 cases against policemen over deaths in drug operations. They have also fired 423 policemen because of their involvement in illegal drugs and sacked another 2,400 for extortion.

In contrast, data reported at the Real Numbers briefing showed that 7,867 administrative cases against police have been resolved from July 1, 2016 until May 20, 2019. Of these, 2,367 were dismissed from service.

PNP Deputy Spokesperson PSupt. Kimberly Esteban Molitas explained that the discrepancy between their data and Real Numbers data is due to the verification process by the PDEA, which is the repository of all drug data in the country.

Some entries are duplicated, while some incidents in the PNP’s running tally are still being verified by the PDEA, she said.

The government’s reporting of drug war data has been criticized for being inconsistent.

Recently, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) had to defend itself from a report which highlighted how it contradicted itself in reporting drug war deaths.

In 2017, it listed the 16,355 homicide cases under investigation as one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s key accomplishments under a section on the drug war, along with other data about the campaign against illegal drugs.

The government eventually stopped reporting homicides under investigation and instead focused on reporting on deaths in legitimate drug operations. PCOO Assistant Secretary Maria Rafael-Banaag said they stopped including these in their reports because people have stopped asking.

Rafael-Banaag insisted that all cases which are considered as homicides under investigation are totally unrelated to the drug war. However, she also said during the briefing that cases similar to the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, who was shot dead by police during a drug sting, are also lumped under this category.

But for Presidential Human Rights Committee Secretariat Executive Director Undersecretary Severo Catura, there are "so many positive things" for the media to report aside from the drug war death toll.

“Let us consider the fact that when the President declared an anti-illegal drug campaign, there was immediately some 1.3 million [people] surrendered. And right now, there are so many anti-drug operations that resulted in more than 193,000 arrests, as compared to the deaths that have occurred," Catura said at the Real Numbers briefing.

Albayalde also made a similar pitch, saying that the number of drug personalities killed in police operations is dwarfed by the number of those arrested in the campaign.

“If you compare that to the persons that we arrested, of the more than 240,000 this is merely 2.7 percent — and this is not being highlighted,” he said.

However, government officials were quick to clarify that they are not downplaying drug war deaths.

“But it happened in a campaign that involved a grossly expansive problem that needs to be addressed accordingly,” Catura said.

Albayalde agreed that one death in the drug war is too many, but he added, quoting the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “When you are trying to save a million lives, one death is too kind.”

No need for UN probe

UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on Philippine authorities to be more transparent with the circumstances around the deaths, and investigations related to allegations of rights violations.

She also called the number of deaths in the drug war “extraordinarily high,” and that even official government reports which bring the death toll to just under 6,000 — as opposed to over 27,000 according to reports of human rights groups — is still a “matter of most serious concern for any country.”

Bachelet has been called on by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to probe killings and other alleged human rights abuses in the country and is expected to present the results during the body’s 44th regular session on June 2020.

But the Philippines has not been receptive. President Rodrigo Duterte has gone as far as “seriously considering” cutting ties with Iceland, the country that sponsored the resolution before the UNHRC.

READ: Duterte: Cutting diplomatic ties with Iceland may hurt OFWs

“We have a perfectly working judicial system in our country. We have a Constitution that protects our individual rights. So why do we need a foreign body here? So what’s going on here in the war on drugs is basically a domestic problem,” Albayalde said.

Catura, who was part of the Philippines' delegation to the UNHRC, said they do not want a country-specific resolution because the country already undergoes periodic reviews under the UN.

“All these mechanisms, all this information is out there. So what is the need for a country-specific resolution compelling the Philippines to undergo the same review mechanism? So that totally disregards everything,” he said.

He added that the country responds to comments made by UN special rapporteurs, except the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, who the government “does not want to deal with.”

Callamard has earned the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte ever since she started criticizing the government’s drug war. She said it is “very unlikely” for her to be part of the UN’s review of the human rights situation in the country.

But with or without Callamard, UN investigators would be refused entry to the Philippines, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.

“If somebody comes over here, given the very political environment, such will always be taken advantage of by certain interest groups. Rather than focusing on the positive things that we’ve been doing, they’ll focus on those gory things that you’ve been mentioning,” Catura said.