World First Look

Why the UN wants the Philippines to investigate Duterte for murder

Duterte's apparent admission that he had killed three men in Davao has led to a UN call for an investigation.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at a meeting with the Filipino community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016.
Heng Sinith/AP
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The UN high commissioner for human rights has recommended that Philippine courts launch a murder investigation into President Rodrigo Duterte for murder, days after he told reporters in Manila that he had killed suspected criminals while mayor of Davao City.

"In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys that, if I can do it, why can't you?" Mr. Duterte said on Dec. 14, according to the Associated Press. "I'd go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around and I would just patrol the streets and looking for trouble also. I was really looking for an encounter to be able to kill."

Duterte shot three suspected kidnappers during a firefight with policemen, he said in recent speeches. However, he later added that he was not sure if his bullets had killed the men, and a spokesman denied that the president had personally killed anyone.

Those acts would be a violation of international law and Philippine constitutional rights, said UN commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, calling it “unthinkable for any functioning judicial system not to launch investigative and judicial proceedings when someone has openly admitted being a killer.”

The call to investigate is the most full-throated condemnation of Mr. Duterte, whose piloting of a vigilante-style war on drugs that has left more than 6,000 dead and unfolded into an international scandal has attracted international concern. 

"Those comments are deeply troubling, and they certainly are at odds with the Philippine government's stated commitment to due process and rule of law," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reports after Duterte's latest remarks, according to the Associated Press.

As president, Duterte has pioneered an unusual relationship with his own press office, in which his insults of the United States and the United Nations and apparent admissions of involvement in crimes – the BBC notes that this goes back as far as 2015 – are subsequently walked back by his press officers.

His latest boasts fit that mold. On Dec. 16, after a spokesman told reporters that the president’s comments about killing while on patrol in Davao should be taken “seriously” but not “literally,” Duterte seemed to confirm his suggestion in literal terms.

"I killed about three of them," he told a BBC reporter. "I don't know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies. It happened and I cannot lie about it."

While the interview is the first time Duterte has publicly admitted to personally killing Philippine citizens, he has encouraged police and citizens to assassinate people they suspect of dealing drugs.

"If they are there in your neighborhood, feel free to call us, the police or do it yourself if you have the gun," he said in June. "Shoot him and I'll give you a medal."

Such encouragement, said Commissioner Al-Hussein, could constitute incitement to violence. He added that police who committed such human rights violations must not be protected from prosecution, as Duterte has promised.

"The perpetrators must be brought to justice, sending a strong message that violence, killings and human rights violations will not be tolerated by the state and that no one is above the law," he said, according to the AP. 

Nor has he avoided legal entanglements entirely. In September, a former Filipino militiaman from Davao City who admitted responsibility for some 50 extrajudicial killings of drug suspects told a senate inquiry that Duterte had personally ordered killings – and even personally participated in one. The inquiry was abandoned after the committee’s head was replaced, but it sparked calls from human rights groups for the UN to intervene.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told the AP then that Duterte “can't be expected to investigate himself, so it is crucial that the United Nations is called in to lead such an effort.” He added, “Otherwise, Filipinos may never know if the president was directly responsible for extrajudicial killings.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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