Human rights experts at the United Nations called in June 2023 for an end to the global so-called “war on drugs“, which primarily affects poor and marginalised communities – such as it is the case in the Philippines. Ahead of the 2023 International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, UN experts said the international community must replace the approach of criminalisation and punishment with policies that focus on health and human rights.
During ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s term (2016-2022), the Philippine government recognised more than 6,200 extrajudicial killings committed by police – but local human rights organisations estimate around 30,000 killings. Although President Marcos placed the focus of the government’s anti-drug campaign in November 2022 on rehabilitation rather than prosecution, killings continue under his leadership.
The brutal police violence and impunity in the “war on drugs” have been well known to the public in the Philippines. Nevertheless, the broad Filipino population supported ex-President Duterte’s harsh and deadly approach to the supposed curbing of illegal drugs. His supporters used his moral justification through dehumanising and criminalising rhetoric against users of illegal drugs, claiming that they would bring further harm or crime to society. The “Nanlaban” narrative (translated as “fight back”) was increasingly used to justify the killings in Duterte’s “drug war” – namely that the self-vulnerable police officers were merely acting out of self-defence. According to this narrative, the excessive police violence is not only played down but also leaves the disproportionate victimisation of impoverished population groups and the socio-political causes of the “war on drugs” unclear.
Under the United Nations Joint Programme (UNJP), a technical training on the implementation of the Minnesota Protocol in the Philippines was conducted by UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial summary or arbitrary executions, Dr. Morris Tidball-Binz, in early July 2023. The UNJP is a technical cooperation between the UN and the Philippines that has been in place since July 2021 and aims to assist the Philippine government to investigate cases of extrajudicial killings that occurred in police operations in an appropriate manner. The programme also provides for the issuance of invitations to UN Special Rapporteurs who were denied access to the country under Duterte.
The Minnesota Protocol sets out guidelines for investigating and prosecuting potentially unlawful deaths according to international standards. Representatives from the Philippine National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation, the National Commission on Human Rights, and civil society organisations participated in the training. The Minnesota Protocol now exists in Filipino, the national language of the Philippines, and provides guidance on how to investigate cases of extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.
According to Tidball-Binz, the training and implementation of the Minnesota Protocol are necessary measures to put an end to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Forensic pathologist Dr Raquel Fortun also attended the training. Her independent autopsies of the remains of victims of the “war on drugs” in 2022 has been able to prove in some cases that it was not natural causes (as stated in the death certificates) but gunshot wounds that led to death. Her work underlines the need for mandatory autopsies, especially when these do not match the causes of death in police reports and medical records. However, the need for her work exceeds the capacity she has as one of two trained forensic pathologists to provide justice to the bereaved families of the murdered.
Photo © Raffy Lerma