“We’re the ninth safest city. How do you think I did it? How did I reach that title among the world’s safest cities? Kill them all [criminals].”
– Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte

On 14 May 2016, Davao City’s Mayor – Rodrigo Duterte – became the Philippines’ president. His election occurred alongside a staggering trend of extra-judicial killings and vigilantism in the country.

These killings were committed by a loose-knit group, locally identified as the Davao Death Squad (DDS), who’ve been operating openly for over two decades under Duterte’s tenure as mayor of Davao. The group has been responsible for at least 1,400 killings in Davao since 1998.

Most killings take place in broad daylight with multiple witnesses. Their primary targets: drug users, petty criminals and street youth.

Although the President has denied any association with Davos Death squad activities, it promotes one of his key campaign pledges “to end crime within three to six months of being elected”.

Is the Death squad a way to address the country’s criminal concerns since its criminal justice system has been deemed largely ineffective? Could the Philippines revert back to execution-style killings of alleged offenders – legitimising the use of torture and “shooting to kill”?

Universalised conceptions of human rights

In 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted a statement made by Duterte: “We’re the ninth safest city. How do you think I did it? How did I reach that title among the world’s safest cities? Kill them all [criminals].”

HRW noted that Duterte’s vision of “death” being the only punishment for criminals meant that he posed a “grave danger” to the safety of the citizens he was elected to protect.

The IPF spoke to Phelim Kine, Deputy Director (Asia Division) of HRW, to see whether universalised conceptions of human rights can be incorporated in the context of the Philippines.

Allowing such killings to occur with impunity is causing serious harm to the criminal suspects’ right to “innocence before trial,” explained Phelim. He added that it empowers others – both state and non-state actors – to exploit the system for personal reasons, such as pay-per-hit profit incentives. He said:

Any action by government security forces in the Philippines or elsewhere which violates due legal process and universal rights of freedoms is unacceptable. It creates bypasses and demeans the mechanisms designed to protect people from unlawful predations by the state.” 

Duterte’s “deterrence theory” limits fair trial rights and adherence to due process. It also creates several other problems in judicial and state mechanisms. For example, increased targeted killings by the DDS has resulted in people being killed only on suspicion of alleged criminality or mistaken identity.

Such instances of harm inflicted on innocent individuals are not reported, nor are thorough investigations conducted. When asked about the prospects of conducting such investigations in the future, Phelim said the prospects were “not good”.

Killings as “legal harassment”

Phelim confirmed the existence of human rights within the Philippines, which protect the wrongfully suspected, victims and witnesses who seek to testify against such killings. However, the challenge is ensuring that police respect such individuals.

On 11 July the Philippine National Police Chief, Director General Ronald Dela Rosa, labelled calls for a Senate probe into the killings as “legal harassment”– since it “dampened the morale” of the Philippine National Police.

According to Phelim, his dismissal came as no surprise to those who heard his speech on 2 July, where he warned police officers linked to drug dealers to “surrender in 48 hours or die”.

Phelim told the IPF:

Statements from other law enforcement officials in the Duterte’s administration show similar disdain for basic rights. Solicitor General Jose Calida, on 11 July, defended the legality of the killings, saying that the number of such deaths were ‘not enough’.”

The DDS is believed to have killed so many people the totality could amount to mass murder. Such killings routinely receive state impunity from Solicitor-General Jose Calida and many others. As a lawyer himself, President Duterte has backed the rationale behind these killings, having previously said(I) know what is legal and what is not”.

“Nation without judges”

Because of these outlooks, the Philippines is on its way to becoming a “nation without judges“. There is a striking similarity between instances of extra-judicial killings sanctioned by state officials and terror caused by non-state armed groups, specifically the New Peoples Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Instances of torture or terror violate key universal human rights and freedoms embodied in the constitution of the Philippines.

President Duterte’s trend of extra-judicial killings failed to convince roughly 60 per cent of Filipinos. However, there has been no mass outrage since the DDS exerts its power only on economically marginalised groups.

In fact, most victims of such killings have been young men involved in small-scale drug-dealing networks, or minor crimes such as petty theft, who belong to poor urban areas.

This goes to show how the definition of “crime” can vary subjectively, according to both government and public perception. But Phelim warned that there can’t be any “subjective interpretations” of what constitutes legality and human rights, particularly those that are fundamental to any individual’s sense of being, identity and dignity.

At a time when extra-judicial killing, intrinsic to the working of Davao city, is considered a “model for fighting crime”, the Philippines’ future inevitably stands at the crossroads of “deterrence” and human rights under President Duterte.