Last week Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte suggested that his government would be open to arming private “volunteer” groups to supposedly better enforce law. The president’s statement, which was made on Friday, June 25, was a reiteration of similar offers Duterte made to the Philippines National Police (PNP), repeatedly, since he came to power in 2016. The president suggested the creation of a “coalition” with “power multipliers” (referring to pro-government vigilante groups) to bear arms to help the government “enforce the law.”
Duterte found support from the current chief police general Gillermo Eden Hazard who has defended arming vigilantes “to ensure their own protection.” This has prompted a nationwide outcry, especially since the Philippines’ government is currently under international scrutiny due to its dirty war on drugs, crime, and the insurgency which has been responsible for thousands of deaths.
Many have questioned the need for armed civilians and also raised alarm at the already abysmal human rights situation in the country. In June, Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, (ICC) requested for authority to investigate crimes committed by the government over its “war on drugs” campaign, which is estimated to have killed between 5,000 to 20,000 people.
“Bloody disaster waiting to happen”
Jacqueline de Guia, the spokesperson for the Commission of Human Rights, in a statement released shortly after the president’s statement, warned that arming “civilians without proper training, qualification, and clear lines of accountabilities may lead to lawlessness and proliferation of arms, which may further negatively impact the human rights situation in the country.”
Gabriela Women’s Party legislator Arlene Brosas also noted this pointing out that “the PNP is already bloated with thousands of new recruits annually and with the law enforcers themselves getting enmeshed in scandalous crimes, including drugs, and sexual violence.”
Human rights movement Karapatan also pointed out that the existing vigilante groups hired as “volunteers” by the PNP and Philippines military (AFP) have a “long bloody history of human rights violations” at the behest of the Duterte, for his war on drugs and its armed conflict with the insurgent communists, and are often accused of extra-judicial killings.
“Employing and arming so-called civilian volunteers, mobilized for the government’s sham drug war and war on dissent, will only promote and worsen the climate of impunity in the country,” read a statement by Karapatan. The groups also argued that any such move will only legitimize the nanlaban (fight back) narrative used by law enforcement to explain away extrajudicial killings, either by them or their civilian enablers.
Ariel Casilao, former legislator and current president of Anakpawis, the political arm of the trade union movement Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), also echoed this issue and pointed out that Filipinos “are already systematically abused by the existing armed forces units.”
Fernando Hicap, national chairperson of Pamalakaya-Pilipinas, a fisherfolk union, raised concerns of those in power using such armed militias for their benefit. “Aside from using it against activists and suspected drug addicts, traditional and warlord politicians might commission these armed groups to attack their political rivals in the 2022 polls,” said Hicap.
Left-wing lawmakers of the Makabayan Bloc in the Philippines Congress have also voiced their opposition, calling it “another bloody disaster waiting to happen.” Deputy minority leader in the House of Representatives, Carlos Zarate, said that such comments “will only make the streets more dangerous as this will usher a rise in extrajudicial killings and vigilantism.”
Skepticism even from allies
Others outside the progressive circles have also raised alarm against such a move. Former PNP head and current senator, Panfilo Lacson, weighed in stating that arming civilians could easily “backfire.” He also added that instead of proliferating arms, the government should focus on gun control as an effective means of dealing with rising crimes.
“Stricter gun control measures by the Philippine National Police, including the more stringent issuance or even suspension of permits to carry firearms outside residences (PTCFORs), would be a better solution to stopping criminality than arming civilians,” Lacson said in his statement.
Even conservative allies and pro-government lawmakers, including Aquilino Pimentel III (a senator representing a party led by the president’s daughter) and senator Joel Villanueva, have expressed their reservation about the move over protocol issues that may arise and also called for greater gun control.