Human rights campaigners fear returning to the Philippines after Duterte’s threats

It’s been three months since human rights campaigner Ellecer Carlos has been home to the Philippines.


Walking through the streets of Melbourne, where he’s resided for the last week, he says it’s much colder here than he expected.

Cold, he said, but safe given the threats he faces back home.

“He threatened to harvest us, using that exact term. He threatened to behead us, this was actually in November,” he told SBS World News.

“It’s just a matter of ordering the police and vigilantes to go after you. It’s a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.” 

Ellecer Carlos with colleagues in MelbourneSBS

The threats come from president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.

He is angered by nationals like Mr Carlos campaigning in the US, Europe and Australia against the his so-called war on drugs.

Mr Carlos said the president has all but guaranteed freedom from litigation for police and vigilante groups, as the death toll of those accused of drugs crimes mounts.

“He has effectively put in place a permission structure for mass murder. He has through sustained public announcement incited to violence.”

Human Rights Watch claims over 7,000 have been killed since President Duterte took office June last year.

Mr Carlos said the toll has risen dramatically in just the last week.

“In just three areas alone, 65 killings and in total 90 killings and these are just the documented ones. There are many many cases we continually come across which have not become part of the official figures.”

Founder of a Filipino expat human rights group in Australia, May Kotsakis, claims most of the victims are likely users and low-end distributors from the poorest regions.

She said the most powerful drug lords escape prosecution.

“The big drug lords, the most powerful, are not being persecuted. It’s the poor people being victimised.”

May Kotsakis founder of Gabriela AustraliaSBS

But far from damaging his reputation, popular support for the president rose to 66 per cent last month.

Ms Kotsakis said she thinks it’s the Mr Duterte’s rhetoric that garners the favour of the people.

“He says he’s going to get rid of corruption, he’s going to have independent foreign policy, he won’t be pushed around by the US so the people thought this is a good president.”

Human rights groups are calling on the Australian government to intervene.

Amnesty International Campaign Manager Michael Hayworth said pressure needs to be put on the United Nations to mount an independent investigation into human rights abuses in the Philippines.

“The Australia government along with other governments in the region can send a loud and clear message to President Duterte that this sort of behaviour, these killings are completely unacceptable.” he said.

“The Australian government, like other governments, can also support the call for an international UN-led investigation to get justice for the victims of these killings.”

Protesters in Manila display placards during a rally to condemn the recent killings in President Rodirgo DuterteAP

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told SBS World News she raised Australia’s concern about extra-judicial killings and the importance Australia attaches to human rights with President Duterte when she met the President in Manila earlier this month.

In a statement, Ms Bishop said the practice of extra-judicial killings to combat drug trafficking and usage remains of deep concern to Australia.

But Mr Carlos said he fears that without strong diplomatic intervention the situation in the Philippines will continue to escalate.

“This presents grave risks to all Filipinos. We are all dehumanised because of this, and it has made human life very cheap in the Philippines.”

Catholic churches in the Philippines have issued a joint statement, that every night for three months church bells will ring to raise alarm over the growing death toll in the country’s war on drugs.