Australia needs to speak up about the Philippines' murderous 'war on drugs'

By Matt Wells and Rawya Rageh, Senior Crisis Response Advisers

A longstanding relationship between two countries means being able to stand up for what's right. Australia has to be prepared to deliver difficult messages, not becoming indulgent of, or indifferent to, murder on a mass scale, like what we're seeing in the Philippines.

Ever since President Rodrigo Duterte swept to power at the end of June last year, more than 1000 people have been killed on average each month, most often in extrajudicial executions. The victims are usually people suspected of using or selling drugs. Their names appear on unverified "drug watch lists" that, through hearsay and rumour, are drawn up by local political bosses, often turning into "hit lists" as they are handed down to the police and through them to killers on their payroll.

Far from proving to be the champion of the poor he styled himself as, Duterte has overwhelmingly targeted the impoverished in his "war on drugs". The families who arrive each day at morgues to identify their loved ones, or who search the streets to find their bullet-ridden bodies abandoned next to a cardboard sign denouncing them as "pushers", come primarily from the Philippines' urban slums.

Support for human rights and the rule of law must not be cast aside now, when it is most needed
Matt Wells and Rawya Rageh

For the police, these slums are rich with opportunity. As an anti-drugs police officer told Amnesty International, there are anti-drug units that get up to $US300 ($400) for each person they kill. During raids, they further enrich themselves by snatching possessions from the dead while planting "evidence". In falsified police reports, they claim with striking consistency that the alleged drug offender violently resisted arrest, therefore the killing was justified. Witnesses instead describe people being killed in cold blood while pleading for their lives.

Another revenue stream for the police comes from funeral homes. As our investigation, "If you are poor, you are killed: Extrajudicial executions in the Philippines' 'war on drugs' ", established, the police receive a cut for each body they bring certain funeral homes. Even as poor families sink deeper into debt, borrowing sums for the burial, the police profit from murder.

Where the police aren't prepared to act in an official capacity, often because they fear a killing might generate suspicion, they either assume disguises or contract out the killings. Borne on a motorcycle, a pair of killers approach a target, gun them down and speed away. This way, anguished relatives cannot identify the killers to file a complaint and the police face no questions about their conduct and no paperwork to fill in or reports to falsify.

After Duterte came to power, business has been "rampant", a paid killer told us. They average three or four "orders" a week, whereas they had one or two a month before Duterte. A paid killer said that he and his colleagues receive their orders from a serving police officer, who pays them 5000 pesos ($US100) for a "user" and twice or three times as much for a "pusher".

These same police –  who shoot first and ask questions later, falsify their reports, steal from their victims, take payments for each target they kill and pay others to kill on their behalf – may still be receiving extensive assistance and support from their Australian counterparts.

As Fairfax Media's Lindsay Murdoch reported in November, Australia continues to provide "comprehensive training", including in counter-terrorism, critical incident management, surveillance techniques and equipment. Julie Bishop's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has sedulously maintained silence on this arrangement, even as the Foreign Affairs Minister has appealed to the Philippines to put an end to the killings.

In November 2015, during Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's first visit to Manila, Australia and the Philippines jointly signed a "comprehensive partnership" agreement. The agreement proudly states that the two countries' relationship is "grounded in shared values of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law".

Those words have now been made a mockery. President Duterte has repeatedly expressed his contempt for human rights, even threatening to kill people who stand up for them. Far from enforcing law and order, his police have turned into a criminal enterprise that profits from the murder of the poor.

Few countries have closer relations with the Philippines. Over the course of their 70-year relationship, Australia and the Philippines trade on preferential terms, with almost all their goods flowing through each other's borders without incurring duties. There are more than 280 Australian companies in the Philippines, investing more than half a billion dollars and employing more than 40,000 people there.

When the Philippines has suffered natural disasters, Australia has stepped in to offer humanitarian assistance. The two countries have defence agreements that stretch back to the Second World War.

Australia has leverage here. It should use it to urge the Philippines to put an end to the organised and widespread extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity.

Bishop said in December last year that Australia is willing to assist the Philippines government to support improvements in humane, voluntary and heath-focussed drug policies as an alternative to the "drug war". No less importantly, Australia should step up its diplomatic pressure on President Duterte to respect human rights.

To date, more than  7000 people have been killed, including young children. Already impoverished families have been further marginalised. Throughout the country's poorest neighbourhoods, people fear that, regardless of whether they are involved in drugs, it will be their home raided and they or their loved ones killed.

The Australian government should recall the principles it said would guide its relationship with the Philippines. Support for human rights and the rule of law must not be cast aside now, when it is most needed. 

Matt Wells and Rawya Rageh are senior crisis advisors at Amnesty International and wrote If you are poor, you are killed.