The Philippines' human rights watchdog said Monday it has launched an investigation after nine people were killed in a series of raids by security forces targeting alleged communist insurgents.
The independent Commission on Human Rights said it had dispatched a team to investigate the killings and arrests, as it urged the government to do the same.
"Activists are not necessarily terrorists and there should be a differentiation between those who take up arms and those who merely exercise their constitutional right to form and join associations, organizations as well as petition the government for redress of its grievances," spokeswoman Jacqueline de Guia told AFP on Monday.
All the people killed or arrested in Sunday's coordinated operation near Manila were unarmed activists, leftist group Bayan said.
But National Police chief Debold Sinas said the operation -- involving police and military personnel -- was staged in response to reports that the suspects were in the "illegal possession of firearms."
Nine people were killed and 15 arrested during the raids, he said.
The incident came two days after President Rodrigo Duterte — whose controversial drug war has cost thousands of lives — repeated an order for security forces to "ignore human rights" and kill communist rebels.
Hundreds of activists, journalists and lawyers have been killed since Duterte took power in 2016, rights groups say.
Impunity left unchecked
The CHR said this impunity has been left unchecked by the government despite its several commitments made—domestically and internationally—to uphold, respect, and protect human rights.
"We have yet to see concrete response to our repeated plea for tangible reduction of violence on the ground. Where the right to life is concerned, the government has the utmost obligation to fulfill its obligation—no matter which side of the political spectrum one belongs. It is the supreme duty of the State to protect the right to life," De Guia said in a statement.
"Hence, all necessary actions must be done to demonstrate our genuine regard for life and to truly address the impunity and stop further killings," she added.
Likewise, the CHR condemned President Duterte’s statement ordering the police and military "to shoot and kill right away" if they see communists holding a gun and "ignore human rights."
"We stress that, while CHR condemns the use of arms and violence to overthrow a government, human rights must be respected at all times. Crimes must be punished under the guidance of the rule of law and due process," De Guia pointed out.
"Words matter and such words can embolden some to act with abuse and impunity. The government, with its primary obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of everyone, cannot be the first one to violate them," she added.
'Questionable search warrants'
Many died after being accused of supporting the decades-old Maoist insurgency that the populist president has vowed to crush before the end of his six-year term in 2022.
Bayan said police had used "questionable search warrants" in Sunday's operation that targeted "legal activists" -- not members of communist terrorist groups as alleged by police.
One of its own coordinators in Cavite province, south of Manila, was among the dead, it added.
"A policeman makes a wild allegation that you are in possession of just one hand grenade and a judge will sign a search warrant that could lead to your arrest or death," said the group, which campaigns for workers, farmers and other marginalized sectors.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government would probe the killings — but defended the use of deadly force when necessary.
"If your opponent has guns that can kill you, you wouldn't wait to get shot at and killed," he said. — with Llanesca T. Panti/Agence France-Presse/RSJ, GMA News