OPINION: How do you parse ‘extrajudicial killings’?

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Sep 27 2016 09:41 AM | Updated as of Sep 27 2016 10:16 AM

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday slammed foreign and local critics, including news organizations and human rights groups, for tagging 1,756 deaths related to his war on drugs as extra-judicial killings.

Since Mr. Duterte won the elections by a large margin, police operations have killed more than a thousand alleged addicts, street peddlers and a few mid-level “lieutenants” of drug syndicates. Unidentified assailants have felled almost 600 others. Another 133 bodies were found wrapped like mummies in plastic shrouds bound by packaging tape.

All these, the President and his allies tell us, should not be called extra-judicial killings. These, they insist, should be called “deaths under investigation.”

Nobody can force Mr. Duterte to use the phrase. But no amount of cursing by the Chief Executive can stop anyone from using it.


Discussing the killings linked to the war on drugs, National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) Secretary-General Edre Olalia notes that they represent “classic hornbook (textbook) extrajudicial, whether resolved or unresolved.”

“The essence is killing outside the legal/judicial process/framework,” he points out.

The motive can be anything -- punishment, reprisal, vengeance or whatever reason. The crucial factor is whether a person was killed without being given due process, Olalia adds.

Due process, Olalia notes, is the opportunity to be heard and given a fair trial.”

The Philippine Constitution states: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.” (Article III, Section 1)

Cebu Rep. Gwen Garcia, however, says there can be no extrajudicial killings since no judicial counterpart exists in the absence of a death penalty?

“Non-sequitur ‘yan,” Olalia says. “Universal lexicon and usage applies regardless.”

If we are really have to quibble over terms, he adds, it is just that “extrajudicial killings” is most often used when there is a political ingredient or connotation.

Drug-related killings can be also called summary and arbitrary killings – and these are certainly extrajudicial, he points out.


Duterte and his followers see concern for due process as just below actual support for criminals.

Caring for the rights of suspected addicts and pushers, and criticizing methods in the war against drugs, feed our young into the maws of the dealers of death, according to the President.

Assistant Secretary of the Cabinet Peter Tiu Lavina, whose main task is leading the most rabid flank of Duterte’s social media army, calls it “defending the human wrongs of criminals.”

In so many ways, we are told:

1) The President has no time for niceties because narco-politics has the nation by the throat. But we must give the President enough time to show the results of his brilliant strategy against narco-lords.

2) To dub the deaths in the course of the war against drugs as extrajudicial aids the enemy because it damages government’s image and demoralizes our cops.

3) Criminals are whoever cops say are criminals or whoever pops up on Duterte’s lists. These are all supposedly validated and verified; the President is never wrong.

4) Criminals do not deserve due process because they have victimized so many of our people. But we all owe the best President the county has ever seen due process.

5) Because the suspects remain unknown (and at large), we cannot accuse the state of committing extrajudicial killings.

6) If we’re so concerned about due process, we should shut up and wait for the Philippine National Police (PNP) to finish investigating some 800 cops involved in operations where suspects died. This is a regular process under agency rules; thus, death under investigation.

It’s not like Duterte is the only Philippine President to face EJK allegations.

Karapatan reported more than 1,200 EJKs under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and 307 from July 2010 to December 2015 under former President Benigno Aquino III.

Human rights groups and agencies, whether internal to countries or in multilateral bodies have used the term extra-judicial killings for decades.

But wait, complains PNP Director for Plans Lazarus Vargas: Cops never use the term extrajudicial killings!

Of course they don’t.

It is standard procedure for police and local strongmen to claim “self-defense” or “collateral damage” -- even when tales are so outlandishly tall they fold on themselves.

This is not unique to the Age of Duterte. And it is a practice that is sprawls beyond the war on drugs.

Simply put, reality is not always what state officials say it is.


Duterte insists he has never ordered state security forces to engage in extra-judicial killings. He claims most deaths stem from cops’ self-defense measures.

The President says he’s just out to boost the efficiency of his war machine by sweeping away burdens placed by human rights advocates on the backs of state security forces.

But these safeguards – including due process, enshrined in Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution – were crafted to prevent the powerful from subverting the justice system.

That rampant corruption exists is true. That this corruption has allowed drug cartels to sink their roots deep into the nation’s social fabric is also true.

However, failure to enforce laws, rather than the laws themselves, is what undermines justice in this country.

The President often talks of the power of the drug cartels. But the statistics show most who have fallen in his war are poor people.

Mr. Duterte likes to repeat that many of the estimated 3.7 million addicts in the country have been brought to subhuman levels by the effects of shabu, the poor’s drug of choice.

He also points out that this sector has committed the most crimes to support their addiction – since the rich have the means to support their drug habits.

Many of those slain so far have never been charged with these heinous crimes.

The kin of men gunned down in their homes – sometimes as wives and children screamed for mercy – may not be able to wrap their tongues around the phrase “extrajudicial killing”. But they understand the fundamental flaw in the logic that says if a cop makes you a target, you must be bad.


Outside of police operations, Duterte rejects responsibility for the more than 700 other murders.

“It is not the job of the police to make mummies,” Mr. Duterte huffed in a speech before Mindanao police officers.

He insists most of the other killings were the result of preemptive strikes by narcotics gangs.

“Did it never occur to you that there was a silencing stage? Don’t these (critics) know that there are police and even generals involved? They are killing to prevent guys from squealing or to punish those who have talked,” said Mr. Duterte.

Olalia, however, reminds the President: “There is State responsibility even if it is not a State agent who actually pulls the trigger under those circumstances.”

“There is State responsibility if the State or its agents induced, encouraged, condoned, acquiesced or even applauded it (killing) and did not do anything to prevent, abate or stop it, and/or did not genuinely investigate and prosecute/punish the actual perpetrator,” Olalia adds.

These sins of commission and omission are the bedrock of impunity.

Duterte knows that. He throws his thunderbolts -- shocking, intimidating, insulting -- and engages in razzle-dazzle day in, day out, to keep everyone on reactive footing.

The tit for tat often masks the basic issue: Human rights violations never weaken the corrupt; these almost always strengthen the birds of prey.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.