As the Philippines government’s drug war continues, one of the country’s human rights activists says New Zealand and other countries must speak out more forcefully and demand change. Sam Sachdeva reports.

When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power last June, he pledged to eliminate drug traffickers and fatten the fish in Manila Bay by dumping bodies there.

Since then, thousands have been killed as part of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs.

Among those trying to shine a light on the extrajudicial murders is Wilnor Papa, the campaigns manager for Amnesty International Philippines.

Papa, currently visiting New Zealand, has been fighting for human rights in the Philippines for almost two decades – but his initial involvement with Amnesty at university was less altruistic.

“It was something that I just joined because to be honest, I thought it was really cool…they were sponsoring concerts and incidentally I was in a band and I thought, well this can be a leeway for me to be involved in more gigs.”

Instead, as he learned more about human rights issues in the Philippines and elsewhere, he became more and more involved, deciding to work for Amnesty after finishing university.

The scale of the killings

Throughout his time with the organisation, Papa has not been short of work.

During Gloria Arroyo’s time as president, extrajudicial killings of suspected leftists were a major concern during an “all-out war”, while under Benigno Aquino there were a number of attacks on farmers and peasants.

Where Duterte’s administration differs, Papa says, is in the scale of killings: “For less than a year, you have gone from 3000 or 4000 by August to more than 9000 by May 2017.”

Despite this, he says there has been little public condemnation, with critics outweighed by people fed up with “decades of frustration and desperation” and happy to hear Duterte’s tough talk.

“After martial law ended in 1986, promises were made and people sort of held on to those promises, but…the promises of development, of equality, of human rights for everyone, they just didn’t happen.”

Coupled with worsening crime levels in the country, Duterte’s “iron hand approach” began to appeal to many – and even led to other candidates copying his stance in the election’s final days.

The latest concerns have come from the president’s declaration of martial law and suspension of habeas corpus in the island of Mindanao after a Islamic State-linked terror attack – along with a threat that martial law may be expanded across the whole country.

“Aside from the experiences that we have had [with martial law], the military is not that very well equipped in making sure that civilian supremacy is followed at all times,” Papa says.

‘Wild West’ of the Philippines

Part of the problem, Papa adds, is that the term “human rights” does not resonate in the Philippines community, thanks to the vilification of human rights activists.

To counter that, Amnesty and others have been “going back to our roots” and speaking to the communities whose opinions could sway the administration.

“The killings are very much centred in more poorer communities than the regular communities. There’s a lot of fear in especially urban poor communities where most of the victims come from…fear definitely rules these places.”

Even in other areas, Papa says the killings are the talk of the town while many Filipinos feel even less safe than before.

Amnesty International’s Wilnor Papa has been tackling human rights issues in the Philippines for nearly 20 years. Photo: Amnesty International/Hannah Smith-Frank.

“Before, they might be afraid of being mugged – now they’re afraid of being suspected as drug users or drug peddlers or members of criminal syndicates.”

There have been several cases where innocent people have been killed as part of the vigilantism, including an honours student and church choir member, he says.

“The criminal justice system, instead of being strengthened, is continuously being broken down by the administration itself, by simply not ensuring the right to due process, by simply ignoring the rule of law – it’s like a wild, wild west now in the Philippines.”

In the firing line

Trying to police that wild, wild west does not come without risks.

Most common are the online trolls who mount personal attacks against human rights activists, as Papa and his team found when launching an Amnesty International report into the drug war killings.

“When we launched the report in February, one comment that we got on our Facebook page said they hoped that the nun, [Sister Maria Cordero, an Amnesty Philippines trustee] they hoped that she gets raped and killed so we’ll know how it is to lose somebody we love.”

The situation has not been helped by Duterte’s public comments: he has previously stated that he wants to behead human rights activists, threatening to include them in the “harvest” of drug users.

“It becomes policy because it’s his pronouncement, it’s his basic belief, so that’s why a lot of people who support the president have disdain for the term human rights.”

Amnesty has continued its attempts to engage with the Philippines government, but many training sessions and forums have been halted since Duterte’s rise.

“Suddenly we do not see them reaching out and it’s quite hard to reach out to them because there’s a lot of animosity that has been placed since the Duterte administration came into power.”

The certainty that came from dealing with established agencies in the country has also been compromised by the vigilante attacks.

“We always said that whenever we’re dealing with the police and the military…we know who we’re dealing with – we know how they operate, we know how they think, we know that whatever they do, there will always be a paper trail…

“Right now, the bigger problem for us is that there are unidentified gunmen who are involved in the killing…we don’t know who they work with, who they work for, how they work – it could be anyone, and this is a huge security concern.”

‘New Zealand must speak out’

So what can New Zealand do?

Papa says our government, and those of other countries, must speak out against the actions of Duterte’s administration.

At the Philippines’ UN human rights review in early May, 45 of the 47 countries urged the country to put an end to extrajudicial killings, while Duterte’s attacks on the US and the EU shows their critical remarks are getting through.

“If more countries do this, if more countries demand action, not just pose concerns about the killings but actually demand the Philippines government to do something about it, we will see the light of day quicker than what we foresee it to be.

However, in contrast to the UN review, a leaked transcript of a telephone call made by US President Donald Trump to Duterte last month shows Trump allegedly congratulating the Philippines President for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem…many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing.”

But Papa still believes pressure from the wider international community could lead to change.

“Our president is acting like a strongman, but at the end of the day they’re affected by whatever the international community is saying.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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