Children watch as the remains of suspected victim of a drug-related killing is placed in a crypt at a public cemetery in Manila. (Photo by Vincent Go)
The debate over the actual death toll in the Philippines war against narcotics heated up this week with no less than the country's foreign minister accusing Human Rights Watch (HRW) of "deliberately misrepresenting" the scale of the killings.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano slammed the New York-based human rights organization for portraying "an unfair and unjust image of our country" when it claimed that 12,000 people have been killed in the government's deadly drug war.
The Philippine government has only placed the number of drug-related deaths to 3,967 as of Dec. 27 even as its year-end report admitted that homicide cases possibly linked to the drug war had already reached 16,355.
In its own report, the Philippine National Police said 3,987 people were killed in the government's anti-drug operations over the last 18 months, while only 2,235 of the 19,560 killings under police investigation were drug-related.
In its World Report 2018 released last week, HRW said President Rodrigo Duterte has dragged the Philippines into its most serious human rights crisis since the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos who was ousted in 1986.
The human rights group said that aside from the killings of suspected drug users and peddlers, the Philippine government had also prevented independent investigations into the actual number of deaths related to illegal drugs.
Cayetano said the report was "misleading," adding that he would not allow the human rights organization to "question the strength of our democracy."
"Democracy has never been more alive in the Philippines as we finally have a government that we can really say is of the people and for the people and not for the rich and the powerful alone," said the foreign affairs minister.
He dared HRW to prove that the deaths of the estimated 12,000 people who were killed in the past year were victims of the anti-narcotics campaign.
Cayetano said the group "has been deliberately misrepresenting the figures to make it appear that there exists a culture of impunity in the Philippines and that the country's democratic institutions are at risk.
HRW deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said he was not surprised by Cayetano's statement, adding that it was only the "latest manifestation of the government's distraction strategy" to sideline demands for accountability.
In a statement on Jan. 23, Kine claimed that HRW has become part of a list of institutions and people targeted for harassment and intimidation by the Philippine government for demanding accountability for abuses linked to the drug war.
"The government has made no genuine efforts to seek accountability for drug war abuses," said Kine. "There have been no successful prosecutions or convictions of police implicated in the killings, despite compelling evidence," he added.
He said a United Nations-led investigation of the killings should be conducted to expose the extent of the abuses and to determine possible targets for a criminal investigation, including possible prosecutions for crimes against humanity.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano said, "these assertions are unfair to the Philippines and to the Filipino people." He said HRW has "politicized the issue for its own gain and has not done any real research, study or investigation on the human rights situation in the Philippines."