A report has called on the United Nations to intensify its efforts to investigate unlawful killings in the Philippines drug war, which has left more than 7,000 people dead since last summer.
Officially, police in the Philippines report that around 2,500 of the deaths were the result of operations in which officers were engaged in shoot-outs, while the remainder are categorised as “under investigation” and attributed to vigilante gangs.
However, in its latest report, Human Rights Watch says its investigators have found evidence that police have carried out extrajudicial killings, sometimes falsely claiming they were acting in self-defence, other times planting evidence after the shooting in an effort to incriminate the targeted individual.
“Our investigations into the Philippine drug war found that police routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene,” said report author Peter Bouckaert.
The report echoes claims made previously by other human rights groups, including Amnesty International, who suggest the killings could amount to “crimes against humanity”.
The Human Rights Watch investigation into 24 incidents that resulted in 32 deaths in the Metro Manila area over several months included interviews with victims’ families and witnesses.
The report concludes that masked gunmen in civilian clothes appeared to be working closely with police.
In some cases, according to the report, suspects in police custody were later found dead and classified by police as “found bodies” or “deaths under investigation”.
“Local residents often said they saw uniformed police in the vicinity before the incident, securing the perimeter, but even if not visible before a shooting, special crime scene investigators would arrive within minutes” the report, entitled License to Kill, says.
It comes just days after President Rodrigo Duterte suggested he was ready to end his suspension of the involvement of the Philippines National Police in the drug war.
Last month he declared the PNP was “corrupt to the core” and handed leadership of the campaign to the country’s Drug Enforcement Agency.
It followed the death of a South Korean businessman, apparently killed by police officers while in custody during an attempt to extort money from his wife.
However, Duterte this week said he needed the police to resume operations.
“I need more men. I have to call back the police again to do the job most of the time on drugs, not everyone,” he told reporters.
Despite his criticism of what he calls “erring cops”, Mr Duterte has been accused of creating a culture of impunity for police through his rhetoric, which is often seen to have welcomed the mounting death toll.
On 6 August, he gave the following warning to drug dealers: “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.”
Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, said: “President Duterte’s role in these killings makes him ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands.”
The office of Mr Duterte is due to give its response to the report later today, according to the Associated Press.