By Carlos H. Conde
Researcher, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch .
MANY pundits have interpreted the recently concluded midterm elections in the Philippines as an endorsement of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” Duterte’s favored candidates dominated the Senate, House, and local elections, prompting foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to pronounce, “he [Duterte] and the war just won” and the “war goes on.”
However one views the election results, it won’t change the fact that victorious candidates implicated in “drug war” crimes shouldn’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. Newly-elected senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa was Duterte’s police chief when the “drug war” began after Duterte took office in June 2016. Dela Rosa presided over a Philippine National Police that routinely shot and killed drug suspects, claiming without proof they resisted arrest. Investigations by rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and the media found numerous instances in which the police planted weapons and drugs on victims to cover-up the killings.
The police say that over three years they killed about 5,300 drug suspects who fought back, an unverified claim that also ignores the role of police-backed vigilantes responsible for many more “drug war” killings. The governmental Commission on Human Rights estimates that more than 27,000 have died in the “drug war” – a number that grows daily as killings extend from Metro Manila to other urban areas.
Dela Rosa was as vociferous in carrying out and defending the “drug war” brutality as Duterte was in justifying it. “If many believe that the number of drug addicts has gone down,” he told reporters during his senate campaign, “then somehow we are successful.”
Dela Rosa may still have a date with justice. The Duterte government has shown it won’t carry out necessary investigations, but the International Criminal Court (ICC) could. Although the Philippines has officially withdrawn from the ICC, the court, which is conducting a preliminary examination into killings during the anti-drug campaign, can still investigate alleged crimes against humanity that occurred while dela Rosa was police chief, and any other crimes “occurring in the future in the context of the same situation.” Now that dela Rosa is a policymaker, there is renewed urgency in bringing all those responsible for “drug war” crimes to justice.