Twisting the definition of extrajudicial killings won’t define the bodies out of existence

John Fisher, Human Rights Watch-Geneva Advocacy Director Image ©

“THEY need to be accountable for these deaths.”

Thus said the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Advocacy Director John Fisher on Saturday during an interview with reporters. He said the Philippine government’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of extrajudicial killings using the limited definition provided by Administrative Order 35 issued during the previous Aquino administration is “absurd.”

Fisher stressed that the Duterte administration cannot just say that extrajudicial killings do not exist by limiting its definition.

The said AO, which issued on April 18, 2013 by then President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, was crafted by the Inter-Agency Committee on Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Persons, chaired by then Department of Justice Secretary Leila De Lima.

AO 35 defines extrajudicial killings as committed by “state and non-state forces” to silence, “through violence and intimidation, legitimate dissent and opposition raised by members of the civil society, cause-oriented groups, political movements, people’s and non-governmental organizations, and by ordinary citizens.”

Philippine National Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa Photo ©

That definition was used by the Philippine National Police on Friday to justify their insistence that no extrajudicial killing happened since the Duterte administration took over the reigns of government last year.

Fisher, however, said the Philippines should follow the international definition of what extrajudicial killing is as the country is a signatory to various human rights treaties.

He added that extrajudicial killing refers to the “killing of a person by government authorities without sanction of judicial proceeding or legal process.”

“It is very, very clear that when somebody is killed and in the context of police operations, there is no judicial process, no legal process, there aren’t arrests or charges. It is just a killing that’s taking place outside of the legal process,” Fisher said, adding that the concept is not complicated.

“The fact is that there have been thousands of reported deaths in the Philippines in the context of the so-called war on drugs. The government cannot just define these bodies out of existence through the application of some legal term,” Fisher insists.

The latest official data show at least 3,850 people have been killed in police operations while at least 2,290 others were killed mostly by vigilantes. However, some Human Rights Defenders claimed the figure is now over 13,000.

The Commission on Human Rights, in a recent statement, said limiting the definition would “discount killings that are also perpetrated by state agents and non-state actors that remain uninvestigated” noting that it has always adhered to international guidelines and that the definition used during the Aquino administration was based on what was happening at that time.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. © Erik De Castro / Reuters

This is not the first time that the Duterte administration denies the existence of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last September 22 in Geneva, Switzerland, the Philippine delegation insisted that the deaths from police operations “are not extrajudicial killings” as it firmly rejected calls by United Nations (UN) member-states to conduct a thorough and impartial probe into the drug war deaths.

“[Their] responses to the UPR process made it very clear that they simply won’t accept the extent or scope of the problem or the problem even exists, let alone putting processes to try and identify those responsible or bring these human rights violations to an end,” Fisher noted.

“So it’s inevitable, I think, that they will use national definition or legal tricks or semantic techniques to avoid responsibility for the deaths that are taking place.”

Meanwhile, the HRW reminded the Duterte administration that as a member of the UNHRC, the Philippine government has an obligation to uphold human rights and be open to independent probes.

“Membership comes with responsibilities,” Fisher said during the same interview.

“The Philippines is expected to fulfill its membership obligations such as to uphold human rights standards and cooperate with UN mechanisms such as the Special Rapporteurs.”

If the attitude of “constant denial” continues, Fisher warned that the Philippines can be kicked out of the UNHRC. It is a measure that can be taken by the UN General Assembly in New York.


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