Human Rights Watch says it has documented crimes against humanity in Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs
It usually happens at night, just as people are going to bed.
That's when groups of armed men descend upon suspected drug criminals and shoot them dead. Sometimes the suspects are shot in their homes, in front of their families. Sometimes they're shot in the street and purposely left for everyone to see.
Since Rodrigo Duterte took office as President of the Philippines eight months ago, more than 8,000 people have been killed as part of his controversial war on drugs. Few, if any, have been granted a trial or convicted of the crime for which they have been killed.
This week, Human Rights Watch released its report on the killings, and the organization accuses Duterte and the police of crimes against humanity and suggests that the President should appear before the International Criminal Court.
Almost all of the victims we found were from the extreme poor.- Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch
In the report, Human Rights Watch alleges that weapons and drugs are being planted on suspected drug criminals after they have been shot, that suspects are being shot after being taken into police custody, and that the police are more involved in the shootings than the government has been willing to admit.
Peter Bouckaert is the Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch and he was in the Philippines documenting the killings. As he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the intensity of the killings taking place in the streets of the Philippines is leaving the families and friends fearful for their own lives.
"Almost all of the victims we found were from the extreme poor and the vast majority of them were drug users, most often recreational drug users rather than significant figures in the drug world," explains Bouckaert.
Documenting the shootings
Bouckaert and his team would head to the scenes of shootings, racing to get there as soon as possible after they occurred. He recounts the story of a shooting in a slum area that happened a just a few weeks ago.
"We rushed to the scene and we found a young transgender woman shot to death with her shocked relatives standing around," says Bouckaert. "They said that she had been pulled out of her home by seven masked gunmen. They had taken her down the alley, told the neighbours to leave and then shot her to death."
The family suspects that the killers are police officers in disguise, which Bouckaert says is a likely scenario.
"These are very heavily-policed neighbourhoods and these men operate in these neighbourhoods every night without being stopped by the police," explains Bouckaert. "It would be quite remarkable to have a group of eight or ten masked men driving around on motorcycles, carrying out these killings, without the police even noticing."
Duterte has repeatedly claimed that many of the killings are carried about by vigilantes and are beyond his control.
Bouckaert says that police involvement in the killings leaves the families of the victims feeling intimidated and without help.
"Most of them know that the police are carrying out extrajudicial killings because they know that their relatives did not have guns and that evidence was planted at the scene," says Bouckaert.
He tells the story of one woman whose husband was killed by men she suspected were police officers.
"She went to the police station to try to make a complaint, and she found the very killers who had killed her husband present at the police station," says Bouckaert. "So there's a lot of anger, but also a real feeling of powerlessness."
Living in fear
As the Emergencies Director for Human Rights Watch, Bouckaert often visits war zones, documenting war crimes.
"I have to say that protecting my own security and the security of the people I worked with in the Philippines was more difficult than it is in the average war zone," says Bouckaert.
He goes on to tell the story of speaking with a woman who was a witness to a shooting. As they were speaking, she suddenly went quiet and froze.
"[She] pointed at a group of motorcycle riders driving down the street and said, 'that's them, those are the killers', entering the neighbourhood looking for more people to kill. It really sent chills down our spines to see these killers pass in the street right next to us."
Bouckaert points to the recent arrest of Senator Leila de Lima as another reason why Filipinos feel powerless in the fight against the drug war deaths. De Lima is an outspoken critic of Duterte's and had launched Senate hearings into the extrajudicial drug killings.
"Duterte, the President, vowed that she would 'rot in jail,' and that's exactly where she finds herself today. So there is a lot of fear and intimidation against journalists and against civil society today in the Philippines."
A voice for change?
But Bouckaert finds some hope in the recent actions of the Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in the Philippines. This week, on Ash Wednesday, churches across the Philippines held services for the families and victims affected by the drug war, and called for an end to the killings.
"The Catholic Church, which is very powerful in the Philippines, is emerging as a leading voice against this brutality and this carnage," he says.
Duterte is now backing a bill that would lower the age of criminal responsibility for children from the current age of 15 to the age of nine.
Bouckaert says dozens of children have been killed in the war on drugs, some accidentally. But he says the wider, greater impact on children is the deaths of their parents.
"Many of the people that have been killed are the sole breadwinners in these families. The vast majority of these families live in extreme poverty," he says. "They're now deprived of that single income and living under extremely difficult conditions."
When asked about the continuing popular support for Duterte, despite the extrajudicial killings, Bouckaert says that the president is representative of a global trend among "populist" leaders.
"[They] lie to their own people, trying to instill fear in their own people, and then putting themselves forward as the saviour," he says.
He points to U.S. President Donald Trump, saying that Trump is trying to make Americans afraid of immigrants.
"President Duterte has created this myth that there is this tremendous drug calamity in the Philippines, and that the only way to save the Philippines is through his bloody drug war."