The United Nations human rights office has condemned the killing of nine activists by Philippine police over the weekend and urged the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to investigate the incident, as his national security adviser confirmed a “shoot-on-sight” order against the activists, who are alleged to be communist rebels.
“We are appalled by the apparently arbitrary killing of nine activists,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said during a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
“We are deeply worried that these latest killings indicate an escalation of violence, intimidation harassment and ‘red tagging’ of human rights defenders.”
“Red-tagging” refers to government and military efforts to label anyone critical of human rights abuses or fighting for labour rights as a communist. Shamdasani said an investigation into the deaths would be “a critical test for the domestic investigative mechanisms it has established for cases of this kind.”
A total of nine activists were killed on Sunday after the government forces launched a “counterinsurgency” operation, which human rights activists described as “Bloody Sunday”. At least six other activists were also arrested.
Police said they have also recovered firearms and ammunition from the locations of the operation but rights groups and family members of the people killed said the evidence was falsified.
Vice President Leni Robredo, who was elected separately from Duterte and is from the opposition, condemned the incident and called it a “massacre”.
“The Filipino people deserve better than this murderous regime,” Robredo said in a statement.
‘Shoot on sight’
Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict with Communist rebels that started more than 50 years ago. Successive Philippine governments have struggled to end the fighting.
The activists were killed just two days after Duterte ordered government forces to “kill” and “finish off” all communist rebels in the country. He also urged government forces to ignore human rights, saying he was “willing to go to jail” to defend his directive.
Rights groups say the threats against Maoist rebels no longer appear to make any distinction between armed rebels and mainstream rights defenders, left-wing groups and other critics of the Duterte administration.
On Tuesday, Duterte’s National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr defended the president’s order and said the operation that killed the nine activists was legitimate.
“In the name of law and order, a shoot-to-kill order has been issued against armed CPP-NPA members,” Esperon said in a news briefing, referring to the armed rebel groups.
“It is really shoot on sight. That’s really the order of the president,” said Esperon, who is a former military general.
It’s unsurprising that Hermogenes Esperon Jr. affirmed Rodrigo Duterte’s shoot-to-kill orders and his blatant disregard of human rights when he led the military in the bloody counterinsurgency campaign Oplan Bantay Laya when he was the military’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008.
— Philip Jamilla (@pmjamilla) March 10, 2021
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the government would investigate the incident but added that the order for troops to kill communist rebels was “legal”.
“The president’s order is correct – kill, kill, kill – because if there is fighting and your enemy is armed, you cannot wait to be shot and killed,” Roque, a former human rights lawyer, said.
“The ‘kill, kill, kill’ order of the President is legal because it is directed to rebels who are armed.”
Shamdasani, of the UN human rights body, urged the Philippine security forces to “take urgent measures to prevent the use of excessive force” and to “refrain from rhetoric that may lead to violations”.
“The fact remains that most of the perpetrators of these human rights violations are enjoying impunity to this day,” she said.
According to the Philippine rights group, Karapatan, at least 318 people have been killed in the course of Duterte’s “counterinsurgency” programme.
In a statement Human Rights Watch called on the UN human rights agency to send a rapid response unit to investigate the recent killings, citing the agency’s mandate to allow such an order during humanitarian and human rights crises.
The Philippine UN Mission to Geneva rejected the human rights agency’s criticism saying it was “appalled” that the world body was “prejudging legitimate police operations” against people “possessing dangerous firearms and explosive devices”.
“We regret this overreach of OHCHR’s mandate – clearly uninformed of facts on the ground,” said the statement, which was also posted on social media.
“There is no basis for calling deaths resulting from these operations as ‘arbitrary killings’,” it said, adding that the operation was carried out “strictly within the bounds of law” and based on court orders.