A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Defend Life! Not Destroy It! A Plea To End Extrajudicial Summary Killings

(Opening Talk at the forum at Pakighinabi Session at the Mateo Ricci Dialogue Center, 3/F Community Center of the First Companions at the Ateneo de Davao University on 18 August 2016. The topic of the Forum was Thou Shalt Not Kill Vs. Do Not Do Drugs!)

There is a tragic war taking place across the archipelago in the last hundred days (May 10 to August 18); this war erupted since Rodrigo Roa Duterte got elected as President of the Republic of the Philippines on 9 May 2016. By rough estimate the average death toll has been 11 to 13 per day. (Doronilla, Amando., “Rising death squad killings alarm UN.”  Philippine Daily Inquirer,9 August 2016, p.1)

Last July 9, twenty-three (23) were killed in just one day! That means more than a thousand Filipinos have been summarily killed in this war!

The President’s fighting words: “I am waging a war. I am now invoking the articles of war.” He claims that he has no fear that this war would cause his impeachment and removal from office.  (Gamil, Jaymee T. “Bato ordered” Probe killings.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 August 2016, p. A1-A6)

This is the war against illegal drugs. The call to wage this war came from the declarations of the President himself even throughout the election period.

In his campaign promise, Pres. Duterte vowed to eradicate crime and illegal drugs in the first three to six months of his presidency and appointed Chief Supt Ronald dela Rosa as chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) to carry out his orders.

After his inauguration, Duterte went on to encourage lawmen to kill drug offenders if they put up a fight or resist arrest. He ordered “state security forces to arrest drug dealers and pushers, and shoot anyone who would resist arrest.”  (Dizon, Nikko. “VP laments lack of outcry vs drug killings.”  PDI, 5 August 2016, p. A1-A17)

His words: “For as long as it is done in the performance of duty of soldiers and police, I’ll answer for it. That is my official and personal guarantee.” (Nawal, Allan. “Shoot-to-kill order vs narcopoliticos”. PDI, 6 Aug 2016, A1-A10)

“Most of those killed have been impoverished drug users, with only one alleged drug lord being killed in an exchange of fire with the police. Alleged drug pushers and users have been killed by motorcyle-riding gunmen, or vigilantes, or by police, who claim that the suspects tried to wrest a gun from officers.” (Nawal 6 Aug, A10)

The statistics of arrests, surrenderees and actual extrajudicial killings

“According to media reports, more than 1,000 people described as drug suspects have been killed in police operations or by unknown gunmen since two months ago. Although the President had disavowed direct knowledge of so-called death squads, he has repeatedly said that drug pushers and users were beyond saving or rehabilitation.” (Ramos 2016 A17).

The PNP report as of early August indicated that Metro Manila tops the list of areas with “the most number of drug offenders killed by lawmen with 148 casualties, Other regions with high casualty figures include Central Luzon with 130 drug suspects.  Calabarzon registered 69 deaths, Central Visayas with 25 killed, Bikol region with 23, Central Mindanao with 21. Northern Luzon came next with 20 drug suspects killed and Davao region with 19.  PNP spokesman Senior Supt. Dionardo Carlos said that 516, 430 drug users and 34, 363 drug pushers have surrendered to the police under Oplan Tokhang.” (Laude, Jaime.  “MM with most number of drug offenders killed by lawmen,” The Philippine Star, 13 August 2016, p. 6.)

There are rough estimates as to the extent of the use of illegal drugs.  “Officials say drug pushers are active in 99.1 percent of Metro Manila barangays; 26.9 percent of the 402,0000 barangays nation-wide are grappling with the problem and 1.33 million Filipinos are drug-users.  (Ramos and Nawal 2016: A19.)  There are of course other sources that indicate that the number could double or even triple.

The President said he cared nothing about the criticism from human rights groups. (Nawal 2016: A10).  The international call to follow the rule of law were falling on deaf ears. In a speech on Thursday, “the President acknowledged the abuses in the war on drugs but is not backing down from a shoot-to-kill order for drug dealers.” (Doronilla 2016: 1)  “(D)espite the stern opposition against his method in combating the illegal drug trade, Pres. Duterte remained unfazed and vowed to continue this kind of a campaign. His words: ‘There will be no stopping of  the momentum until I have destroyed the apparatus”. (Revita, Juliet C. “Duterte unfazed by critics.”  Sun Star, 17 August 2016, p. 2)

Why people support, thus no public clamor

Despite a growing number of casualties, there has not been a major public outcry. A number of key individuals in Philippine society – from Vice-President Robredo to Catholic bishops, from Senator Leila de Lima to heads of universities –  have denounced these extrajudicial killings and wondered why there has not been a show of indignation on the part of the people.

Randy David offers an answer to why there has been no outcry. ”Because in a society like ours with a flawed justice system, criminal suspects tend to escape responsibility by exploiting the weaknesses of legal procedure. In defense of a shoot-to-kill order on suspected drug offenders, it has been argued that this approach, as harsh as it may be, is more efficient and more expedient. (David, Randy. “Human rights and the poor.” In Public Lives. PDI, 7 August 2016, p. A14)

He further added: “All this makes one wonder if the absence of a loud public outcry over these rampant murders does not somehow mirror our own stereotyped images of the urban poor – i.e., of how twisted their values are, of how easily they trade hard work for the fleeting pleasures of drugs and intoxication, of how they cynically invoke joblessness to justify their forays into petty crime.” (Ibid).

How the President and his men justify the campaign

Perhaps, the justifications offered by President Duterte himself  and those tasked to implement his commands help to convince the people that such killings are justifiable. (Sauler 2016: A15). PNP chief Director General dela Rosa maintained the killings were the result of legitimate anti-drug operations and stressed  that the PNP is strictly employing due process in all of its police operations.(Laude 2016: 6).

A number of Duterte’s key supporters – like Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez – expressed support for his war on drugs. Alvarez’ words: “What’s wrong with shoot-to-kill order when the situation requires it, especially when the lives of our law enforcers are in danger?” (Romero, Paolo.  “Lawmakers on anti-crime fight:  Follow rule of law, ” The Philippine Star, 8 August 2016, p. 19)

And yet, on the other hand, the President’s key staff spoke as to where President Duterte stood on extra-judicial killings.  “Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella defended the anti-drug campaign by saying that the President had ‘never ordered extrajudicial killings’ and that ‘he is deeply concerned about what’s happening.’ He pointed out that Pres. Duterte had ordered the PNP and the National Police Commission to look into allegations of summary executions of drug suspects.”  (Aning, Jerome, Tarra Quismundo and Marlon Ramos. “Senate summons Bato.” PDI, 12 Aug. 2016, p. A1-13)

However, even as President Duterte seems to back track a bit, still he goes around the police stations and military camps to offer soldiers and police his official and personal guarantee of immunity from prosecution for killings undertaken in the performance of their duties telling that that for as long as it is done in the performance of duty of soldiers and police, he’ll answer for it.

Being supportive of Duterte’s vision, but opposed to his approach

Voices have been raised to oppose Pres. Duterte’s drug war. However, in order not to antagonize him, those who spoke were careful in saying that on one hand they support the President’s social reform agenda but would still oppose his drug war policy.

“Vice-Pres. Robredo said she understood the government’s campaign against drugs, but she was worried about the campaign’s seeming diminution of the value of human life. Her words:  ‘Right now…for the simplest reasons, people kill. That is what I am worried about, the culture of impunity and violence.’”  (Dizon 2016: A17).

Sen. De Lima has commended Mr. Duterte for having a strong will and great determination to end the drug problem. Her words: ’To be honest, it is difficult to pass judgment on the style of the President, especially that a great majority of our people seem to approve of this naming and shaming strategy. If the President thinks its an effective strategy, then who are we to dictate to him?’” (Quismundo, Tara. “Senators call for due process in antidrug war.” PDI, 8 August 2016, p. A1 –A15). But she emphasized the constitutional requirement of due process.

Archbishop Jose Palma said that while he supported the President’s campaign, the fundamental requirements of due process and rule of law must be observed at all times. His words: “While we appreciate the efforts against illegal drugs, we also question the process things are done.” (Mayol, Ador Vincent S. “Bishop hits Duterte’s drugs list.” PDI, 11 August 2016, p. 2)

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) came up with this statement: “We appreciate Pres Duterte’s many initiatives at addressing the urgent needs of our nation. As churches engaged in works of compassion, we have also witnessed the destructive effects of drugs on individuals and society and the corrupting effects of drug money in our political system. We support the President’s commitment to address this problem.  However, we call on the President to ensure that in the course of curbing this problem, legal processes are respected and human rights are protected; that drug dependents be treated with compassion and provided with opportunities to seek treatment; and that those who profit from this trade are made accountable. (Victorino Raoul V., Bishop Rodolfo A. Juan, Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes, Lissa Belle R. Brown, Rev. Rex RB Reyes Jr. and Reynaldo M. Natividad.  “Hope reintroduced into nation’s life.  In Commentary. PDI, 5 August 2016, p. A13).

Critical comments registered against extrajudicial killings  

While there have not been major public clamor demanding an end to the extrajudicial killings, there have been an increasing number of voices raised on this issue. “Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas asked whether the Philippines is becoming a killing fields nation as it seeks to stamp out illegal drugs. He said he shared the dream of a Philippines without the drug menace, but questioned whether killing crime suspects without due process was a morally acceptable way to eradicate crime.” (Aurelio, Julie M.. “Grieving Bishop Soc: Enough of killings; let our humanity speak.” PDI, 7 August 2016. p. A1-A6)

Sen Panfilo Lacson, Chair of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs, questioned the government’s silence on the extrajudicial killings. His words: “I have to hear a pronouncement from the Palace and even from General dela Rosa that they are doing something to resolve those cases or looking for solutions to the summary killings”. (Dizon, Nikko. “VP laments lack of outcry vs drug killings.”  PDI, 5 August  2016, p. A1-A17)

In a privilege speech at the Senate, Sen. Leila de Lima confronted the issue head-on saying: “We cannot go on being indifferent to the daily executions, without ultimately becoming a nation bound by a collective sociopathy… My concern is not only the killings tallied by the PNP as the formal law enforcement agency. At least we can put the PNP to task in our official legislative investigations.  My gravest concern lies with the vigilantes of the night now operating almost all over the country, those harbingers of death spreading the apocalypse of our dehumanization.” (Editorial. PDI. 5 August 2016, p.A12.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern re the drug-related executions and the State or security forces’ continuing extrajudicial killings and has urged Pres. Duterte to seize the opportunity to “reverse the failings of previous administrations by giving priority to the human problems that have persisted in the country.” (Ocampo, Satur. “Impunity on Extrajuicial killings is a Marcos legacy,” in At Ground Level. The Philippine Star, 13 August 2016, p. 9.)

‘Also expressing alarm was a new coalition of human rights advocates, which called on the administration not to make its anti-drug war a war against the people. In a statement, the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement or iDefend said human rights should never be compromised even in the pursuit of a noble objective by the sate like fighting criminality. (Regalado, Edith..”US”: EJK alarming,”  Philippine Daily Inquirer. 12 August 1)

The United States government has expressed concern on this issue by this pronouncement: “We strongly urge the Philippines to ensure its law enforcement efforts are consistent with its human rights obligations. We strongly believe in the rule of law, due process and respect for universal human rights, and that these principles promote long-term security.” (Ibid.) When John Kerry, the US Secretary of State met with Duterte and Foreign Sec Perfecto Yasay, he  mentioned the need to protect civil and human rights during talks.  (Garcia, Robert Francis.  “Death, drugs and the Duterte dilemma.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 August 2016, p. 1)

“The United Nations has warned that it was ‘greatly concerned’ with the rise of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug pushers and users…In the strongest warning yet issued by the UN, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Yury Fedorov said, ‘I join the UN Secretary General in condemning the apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings, which is illegal and a break of fundamental and a breach of rights and freedom (Doronilla 2016: 1)

The viral photo showing the lifeless body of suspected drug pusher Michael Siaron being cradled by his weeping wife, Jennilyn Olayres landed on the front page of the New York Times thus humanizing the cost of war. Other news outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Daily Mail also provided critical reports.

A youth writer for the Inquirer asked these haunting questions: “Why the heartlessness of exacting massive collateral damage on our people? Why the need for sacrificial lambs?  Is life too cheap for Filipinos today?  Why curtail due process?  The number of casualties or victims seems to rise by the hour. They are humans, sinners just like us that need forgiveness and salvation.. If the rotten judicial system is the obstruction that we complain about in bringing the culprits to justice, then by all means, why not attack the system instead of resorting to the rottenness of our very own hearts?” (Valenzuela, Reni M. “Drug use pandemic among rich, powerful.” In PDI Opinion, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 5 August,  p. A14)

What are the moral issues involved

There are moral and ethical considerations related to the issue of human rights. Their foundation is found both in the field of philosophy and theology which provides underlying basis of the concept of human rights. “Several theoretical approaches have been advanced to explain how and why the concept of human rights developed. One of the oldest claim that these are a product of a natural law; others claim that human rights codify moral behavior which is a human social product developed by a process of biological and social evolution (Hume), as a sociological pattern of rule setting (Weber), or even as a social contract.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_human_rights, accessed 17 August 2016).

Appropriating Socrates to Plato, from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, human rights could be linked to reflections on natural moral and religious presuppositions. From the Stoics and on to the Church Fathers, natural law interfaced with Christian notions of human dignity. (Ibid).

The Jewish philosopher Levinas also provides a philosophical framework to human rights. “Levinas main thrust in his philosophical viewpoint is that the “I” is always responsible to the Other. This is signified in the Other’s face. The face led the “I” to be responsible to the Other beyond the mere face of him/her…This meeting of the I and the Other is known as the face-to-face encounter that results to responsibility. This responsibility is not just mere obligations or duty but an innate, enlarged, non-symmetrical relation to the Other. Thus, the I is always and more responsible than the Other.” (Sta. Ana, Christopher.  “Missiological paper.”  Unpublished termpaper for SATMI, 2016)
When the I is interrupted by the Other, it is as if the words arise: Thou Shalt not Kill.

The Catholic Church has always preached about the sanctity of human rights. A number of Popes have issued statements in this regard. Pope Francis’ words: “Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinate to any condition…Today the Church is renewing her urgent appeal that the dignity and centrality of every individual always be safeguarded, with respect for fundamental rights, as her social teaching emphasizes…. (Pope Francis. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/p/pope_francis.html (accessed 18 August 2016). In Evangelii Gaudium, he states that the commandment “Thou Shalt not kill, sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life (No. 53).

“It is this fundamental sense of value and inviolability of the human person which makes The church tenacious in its insistence that the Duterte administration should desist from giving its operatives the license to kill. The church sources its dissent and disquiet from a conviction deeper than mere judicial-rights thinking as it has developed in the West….. In the words of French sociologist Jacques Ellul writes: ‘The Church is summoned in the course of human history to speak a discerning word to each concrete situation. These are the rights of man here and now.’“ (Maggay, Melba Padilla. “Church-state tensions on human rights.” Philippine Daily Inquirer,12 August 2016, p. A14.

How do we put forward the human rights discourse with a President who is hell bent on winning the war against drugs and has the popular support of his people?

Where do we go from here?  For the moment, it seems as if the war will continue to claim lives if the country’s Commander-in-Chief will not give up on his prescribed mandate. But how do people of goodwill wishing for an end of this war reach out to him? It is said that he will fight back if confronted frontally. So a strong prophetic voice may, indeed, fall on deaf ears.  But mobilizing resources from Filipino culture and having a deep understanding of the psyche of the President may provide us a window of opportunity.  Like you, I came to this forum hoping that we can together find a light at the end of the dark tunnel. (Opening Talk at the forum at Pakighinabi Session at the Mateo Ricci Dialogue Center, 3/F Community Center of the First Companions at the Ateneo de Davao University on 18 August 2016. The Topic of the Forum was Thou Shalt Not Kill Vs. Do Not Do Drugs!)