The author, Antonio ‘Tony’ La Viña, was former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, and has taught law at the Ateneo and the University of the Philippines.
Who can forget the vow of then-presidential candidate Duterte? He said he would kill a hundred thousand drug personalities and criminals and dump them all in Manila Bay. The “fish will grow fat,” he said then. Granting the unconventional, cursing aspirant the benefit of hyperbole, the former Davao mayor’s supporters cheered enthusiastically. His tough talk resonated so well with a public sick and tired of candidates who spew empty promises about curbing criminality and corruption. The indifference of our leaders to these problems engendered an overpowering sense of insecurity and helplessness among citizens.
Duterte promised change.
More than a year into his presidency and thousands of corpses later, no one can say that the President cannot walk the talk. Bodies of drug personalities and innocent bystanders in the wrong place litter the streets, mostly in depressed areas. They are victims of legitimate or not-so-legitimate police operations and of extrajudicial killings by suspected vigilantes. And yet many people remain indifferent, well-nigh morally desensitized to the “ordinariness” of these heinous incidents. Even the gruesome spectacles of bullet-ridden bodies with hands tied, heads wrapped in packing tape, have failed to stimulate the latent moral sensibilities of a pandering crowd.
They all deserve to die is the argument of Duterte supporters. If some are innocent, that’s a pity. But such is war. There is always collateral damage.
But even an apathetic conscience has a limited capacity to absorb evil. It took the death of three young boys — Kian De Los Santos, Carl Arnaiz, and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman — for many of us to realize that the massacre of the innocent must stop. A creeping sense of fear and insecurity now afflicts many of us. We are not this kind of people, murderous and indifferent to the suffering of others. On the contrary, we are a people known to be compassionate and easy to forgive.
More and more are beginning to realize that there is something terribly wrong with how the government is waging its all-out war against the drug menace.
Operation Saklolo needed
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines has now joined the chorus of condemnation. Together with the Catholic Church, Protestant congregations, and human right groups, the country’s lawyers are denouncing the killings.
“It must not be forgotten that regardless of whether or not the victim is a drug offender, unjustified killing is murder nonetheless,” the IBP said in a statement, adding that those responsible for the killings must be held accountable.
While there is no question that drugs, criminality and corruption must be stamped out with unrelenting vigor, it must be fought with due regard to the rights of the people, even if they be offenders; otherwise, we will come up with a lawless society where the life of every person is worthless; where law enforcers are no better than criminals, and ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands because the authorities cannot be trusted. In this environment, the solution is worse than the problem.
In his strongest statement so far, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said in a letter issued on Friday, Septemeber 8: “We cannot allow the destruction of lives to become normal. We cannot govern the nation by killing. We cannot foster a humane and decent Filipino culture by killing … As we denounce as inhuman and un-Christian an act willfully intended and planned to inflict harm or death on a human person, we call on those who harm or kill others to listen to their conscience, the voice of God that summons us to do good and avoid evil.”
These extrajudicial killings cannot be stopped by a few discordant voices. This must be a a national effort. Every self-respecting Filipino must make his or her voice be heard: Condemn these killings and call for the kind of change that inspires respect for the rights of others and fear of the law.
At present, only representatives of the barangay and the media are allowed to be present during the conduct of drug operations. This still seems inadequate since dubious police operations continue with disturbing frequency. Other groups such as the IBP, the Catholic and protestant churches and other relevant groups must be allowed to witness these raids and police operations.
Indeed, I propose that the IBP, the Churches, universities, and media band together to monitor PNP operations and more importantly provide a reassuring presence to targeted communities. The killings are actually happening in a small number of concentrated communities. Let’s identify those who are most vulnerable and launch a massive “Operation Saklolo” that would ensure that the threatened communities are helped by daily and nightly presence of roving multisectoral watchers. That could save many lives.
I would welcome the national democratic left in this coalition to stop the killings. The truth is that among the political groups, they are the only ones with mass organizations that can be at the forefront of protests and other collective actions. I can attest that from the beginning, even as they allied with the Duterte administration on some issues, their allied groups were vocal about the killings and human rights violations related to the war against illegal drugs.
Concerted action on the problem of illegal drugs should also be taken by this coalition based on an understanding that this is a public health problem. In my view, the police should now be assigned only to go after the high value targets — those who smuggle and enable the smuggling of illegal drugs (as we have seen in the ongoing customs controversy.)
Commission to investigate and stop EJKs
I support the creation of an independent fact-finding commission to probe the drug killings. An independent commission much like the Agrava Commission on the Aquino assassination, the Feliciano Commission that looked into the causes of the Trillanes-led Oakwood mutiny, and specially the Melo Commission that probed the killings of media workers and activists. Such a commission should thoroughly and impartially investigate the rising cases of summary killings and other drug killings in the country.
For an EJK Commission to succeed, it must be independent and credible. Among other things, its leadership and members must be highly respected. We have three retired Chief Justices in the persons of former Chief Justices Davide, Puno, and Panganiban; each one is most qualified to lead an independent, non-political, non-partisan probe on these killings — or massacre, if you will. The members of such a commission must also have legal or human rights expertise, and they must be known for their fairness and probity. A child rights expert, forensic expert, and at least one opposition personality should be appointed to the commission.
For a commission to be effective, it must have an adequate budget and the necessary powers to ferret out the facts on these killings. It should certainly have subpoena power and recommendatory power for prosecution by the Ombudsman or the Department of Justice.
Aside from fact-finding, the Commission should also have the mandate of formulating and drafting recommendations to the three branches of government and also to civil society so that extrajudicial killings related to the war against drugs can be stopped once and for all. Nothing should be off the table, certainly not the statements of President Duterte and the question of how these contributed to the current environment.
A call for unity and action
From the beginning, I have described what is happening in our poor neighborhoods as the massacre of the poor. I did not imagine that it would get any worse than that. How could something be more despicable than the fact the weakest and most powerless members of our society, the poor and their children, are the target of killings? Extrajudicial killing is already an abomination, but its unequal and unjust distribution, with the poor suffering the brunt or most of it, further underscores why all of this is outrageous and unacceptable. Because, among others, it will not stop.
But now we have crossed lines that societies should not tolerate. Ongoing around us is a massacre of the innocent, the killing of our young, the hope of our society. It’s not just Kian, Carl, or Kulot; there were others, too, before them. There will be many others if we do not act decisively, and if we do not act now. We lose our future, we lose our souls. Tama na! Sobra na! Itigil na!