At least 122 children, including a one-year-old, have been killed during President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in the Philippines, according to a report that concluded some children have been deliberately shot at and targeted as proxies.
The study, the World Organisation Against Torture, adds to growing calls for the UN human rights council to establish an independent investigation into abuses committed under Duterte. Rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of people may have died as a result of unlawful killings during anti-drug operations launched after his election in 2016.
The report, which examines child deaths between July 2016 and December 2019, reports that police were responsible for just over half of the killings documented. Others involved unknown individuals, often wearing masks or hoods, some of whom allegedly had links to the police.
Some of the children were deliberately killed according to the report, with police potentially targeting those who had witnessed another killing, or claiming they were acting in self-defence. In other cases, children were killed as proxies when the real targets could not be found, as a result of mistaken identities, or were hit stray bullets, the report says.
The 122 deaths documented are likely an underestimate, since relatives are often threatened police and told not to contact human rights groups for help. Activists also face constant harassment. Civil society groups were told Duterte last year: “I will kill you along with drug addicts. I will decapitate you.”
Only one of the deaths, the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, which was captured on film, has led to a conviction. With near total impunity, the deaths continue: since the start of this year, seven more children have lost their lives.
A recent report the UN high commissioner for human rights, due to be presented to the human rights council on Tuesday, warned that rhetoric the highest officials had potentially emboldened police to behave as though they had “permission to kill”. Rights groups have urged the human rights council to order a further independent inquiry into abuses in the Philippines, as it has previously done for atrocities in Venezuela and Myanmar.
The Philippines government “firmly rejects” the allegations of human rights abuses.
There is growing concern about Duterte’s continued crackdown on human rights, and his attempts to silence activists and independent media. Earlier this month Maria Ressa, executive editor of the influential news website Rappler, was found guilty of “cyberlibel” charges, in a case widely condemned as politically motivated.
The country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off air last month following a cease-and-desist order that press freedom advocates describe as a brazen attempt to silence the media. The order was issued despite the escalating coronavirus pandemic in the Philippines, and the need for reliable information.
Meanwhile, a new anti-terrorism act has been passed lawmakers that allows warrantless arrests, weeks of detention without charge and other powers that rights groups fear could be used against government critics.
The government has increasingly filed criminal charges against people criticising the authorities online, sometimes using Covid-19 special powers laws.
The report World Organisation Against Torture warns not only about the growing number of children detained on drugs-related charges, but also the recent targeting of children during the coronavirus lockdown. Throughout quarantine, children have been arrested for curfew violations, and allegedly in some cases detained in dog carriers or coffins.
In a joint statement issued last week, a group of human rights experts said the situation in the Philippines “has now reached a level of gravity requiring a robust intervention the UN”.
“The human rights council must do everything in its power to prevent the continuation of widespread and systematic human rights abuses against the Philippines people,” they said in the statement, which was signed more than 20 human rights figures, including Agnès Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Diego García-Sayán, special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.