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We want NZ to be more vocal on Duterte – Philippines human rights activist

Thousands of Filipinos have been killed in Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘bloody war’ on drugs. As he approaches a year in office, extrajudicial and vigilante killings remain a daily reality, and countries such as NZ need to speak up, says Amnesty International’s Wilnor Papa in an interview with the Spinoff.

Since he came to power in June last year on a wave of populist support, Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed a ruthless and bloody crackdown on drug dealers and users, with more than 7,000 people killed – many by police; most at the hand of vigilantes. The self-styled strongman has called Barack Obama “a son of a whore” and compared himself to Hitler, while courting China and Russia. Last week he threatened human rights activists who challenge his war on drugs with beheading. This week he announced that he was considering imposing martial law, already in place on the island of Mindanao, across the country to counter Islamist terrorism.

All but two of the 47 countries that sit on the UN Human Rights Council this month called for an end to the extrajudicial killings. As chair, Saudi Arabia abstained. China demurred, praising the Duterte government for its “remarkable achievements in protecting human rights”.

Wilnor Papa, campaign manager for Amnesty International in the Philippines, is the keynote speaker address at Saturday’s Annual Hui in Christchurch. He popped by the Spinoff office on Wednesday, just as a leaked transcript of a conversation between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte was published, in which the US president praised his Philippine counterpart for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.

‘Suddenly we’re all faced with a juggernaut’: Wilnor Papa. Photo: Tina Tiller

The Spinoff: Do those sort of comments from Trump help Duterte?

Wilnor Papa: Duterte has been very critical, lambasting the US every chance he gets. Even now he’s saying he doesn’t really care about the US, as long as China is there, and now he’s talking to Russia, so the US doesn’t really figure too much in terms of his grand scheme of things, at least at face value. But then again, if you’re going to look at the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review, where 45 countries out of 47 said that the Philippines should do something about the extra-judicial executions, that the killings should stop, and that included the US, you know there’s this other side to what the US is saying. The Philippines government is saying that it doesn’t really matter, they couldn’t really care as long as China is supportive of the war against drugs and the war against the poor.

We’re coming up to a year now of Duterte’s presidency. What is the mood now in the Philippines about the crackdown. Do people think it’s working?

A recent survey suggests that many of the people that first supported him, particularly in the class C, D and E, are supporting him less, because it’s their communities that are being attacked – C, D and E is something the survey companies use, it is basically the below middle class to poor communities.

Compared to before, when everybody would just automatically say, “We will protect our president, Duterte’s the man”, it does not seem like that any more. I’m not saying he’s losing the big support that he has, he still has a lot of support, but it’s not as vibrant or as evident.

There are people who are afraid of going out in the streets, not because they’re going to be mugged, but because they think they can be targeted as drug peddlers. This has happened a number of times: people who were thought to be drug figures but it was a mistaken identity. The last one was a teenage boy, and the people who witnessed the killing overheard one of the killers say, “this is not him.” And there was another case where two kids were fighting and one of the kids told the local government unit that the kid he’d been fighting with was a drug peddler. One week later, the kid died.

Do these cases get a lot of play in the Philippines media?

The media tries. In fairness to the Philippines media, they try. And they’re very critical, especially the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler and even the Philippine Star. A lot of stories have been done about the killings. But they can of course only do so much because if the police won’t investigate, there’s nothing. We do not believe that the police are seriously investigating anything that is happening. Usually when they say “case closed” they’ve figured out the killers are “unidentified gunmen” and that’s it. And of course the president has always been very, very vocal about supporting whatever it is that the police are doing, as long as it is related to his drug war.

So when a mayor was killed inside a jail, it was so obvious that it was a rub-out: they came in, made the jail guards kneel, also the other police escorts kneel and face the other way, and they started shooting the poor guy. And after shooting the guy, they read him a search warrant . You don’t need a search warrant to go inside a jail, it’s owned by the government. Everybody thought it was out of the world. And the president said later that he believes what his, quote-unquote, “men” are telling him about the killing of the mayor, that he had fired on them.

What about the courts? Are they providing much in the way of a check on the government and the police?

Before we get to the courts we have the public legal authorities who are supposed to help the poorest of the poor, especially if they want to file a case against police. The chief public authority said in one of her interviews that if it is related to drugs they will not lift a single finger. So that is not very encouraging for many people who would like to file cases against the police.

The Supreme Court, although it is still very independent, hasn’t done anything very serious with regard to the killings. They are very divided. The chief justice and three others, maybe, will be very vocal about the killings, about bringing back the death penalty, but you have the other justices being a little bit quiet for comfort.

No serious case has been filed, really, because aside from having little choice with regard to lawyers, people do not have the resources to protect themselves. They would be going against the police. And people just tend to shut up and do nothing.

We do have the case of Efren Morillo. He acted dead during a shooting, until he felt like there were not just policemen but also media around. So he’s being helped by an independent legal organisation. But aside from that there aren’t many cases being filed.

Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016 Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Do the levels of violence, particularly the vigilantism, remain as acute as at first, or has it subsided?

The average up till February was 34 killings daily. The last count I saw before I left the Philippines was about nine over a weekend, and around three or four of those were vigilante killings. Definitely it’s not as much as before but the killings happen still on a daily basis. It has become the modus operandi for many criminals: This is now the system that prevails: it’s easy to kill, especially if you put up a placard that says they’re a drug pusher. That’s the end of the story. A lot of policemen will not even bother investigating if it’s linked with drugs.

Aside from not really following up an investigation, the police come in with funeral parlours in toe. And the funeral parlours pay the police, who ask them to get the body and then they will ask for money from the family of the dead person. And sometimes the police will use the funeral homes as a staging ground for an autopsy, and they’ll ask for more.

So it has become systemic, institutionalised?

Definitely.

It must make your own line of work pretty hazardous.

The attacks on us have been very much online. But we are beefing up our security, definitely. Because of course there are reports that we are being monitored. And there’s always a first time for anything.

But there have been threats from the president himself. A few days ago, after the Universal Periodic Review, out of exasperation, he said he would like to have a human rights activists beheaded. He said last year that he was really pissed off at human rights activists because we are very, very critical of his methods. He said: OK, I’ll stop the killings, but then I’ll allow them to grow, the drug pushers and users, and during the time of harvest – he called it “harvest” – I will include all of you, including human rights activists.

So you have these things coming out of the president’s mouth. He has a lot of die-hard supporters, who might think that killing is maybe a way to support their president or help out in the war against drugs.

You also have very active agents of the president recruiting people from human rights and political organisations to his side. So we’ve seen former martial-law activists, those who fought the dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, going to his side. And we’ve been asking them, “When Marcos was buried in the heroes’ cemetery, how did you feel, because you fought against Marcos and now your president, who you’re supporting, buried him, not just in a regular cemetery, but in a heroes’ cemetery.” Nothing from them. They just say they believe the president can actually make good his promises.

Their argument is the greater good?

The greater good. But of course you don’t see any greater good coming out of the method right now. The concerns from other countries mean investment is dropping. It’s not just the killings, also the return of the death penalty and the pronouncements the president is making.

Right now Filipinos are still not shouting foul, but we figure, you know, once it hits where it matters, their pockets – we feel it, the prices are going up – that could change.

Manila police officers investigate the dead body of an alleged drug dealer. Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

On international pressure, you will have seen Duterte came through New Zealand last year, where he was welcomed by our foreign minister. What would you like to hear from the New Zealand government?

We would have expected the New Zealand government to raise the issue of human rights and the killings and his policies – you know, he wanted to bring back the death penalty, he wanted to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine years old, he wants nine-year-old kids to be in prison. We would have wanted the New Zealand government to have been more vocal on the issues that are besieging the Philippines. Duterte’s been touting around that China and Russia have his back, so it would be really positive for New Zealand to become one of the countries that speaks out.

What would your message then be to the New Zealand prime minister and foreign minister?

Our message to every country is for them to be part of the international community who will not just call out the mistakes or the problems in the Philippines but actually demand that the Duterte administration do everything that it can to really stop the killings and review its human rights policies – if it does have any human rights policy, because as far as we’re concerned there are no human rights policies.

Has Philippine society become more polarised?

That was the tactics, when Duterte was running. It was the tactic that they used and the tactic they found effective and they’ve continued to use it. They actually have people in social media rallying others against organisations, individuals, political leaders who are critical of the Duterte administration. This is the first time that we have really seen a great divide since the final years of the Marcos presidency – a great divide between two opposing groups.

But as we always say, at the end of the day it’s not because of the Duterte administration, this is born out of decades of frustration and desperation, of many Filipinos. So many administrations before Duterte have made promises: since Cory Aquino [who succeeded Marcos] there have been promises that didn’t materialises. We know where the people are coming from and it has proven a challenge, because suddenly we’re all faced with a juggernaut – a juggernaut that has been vilifying human rights, human rights activists. Any word of dissent becomes a perfect target.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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