United Nations (UN) investigators have found thousands were slaughtered during the Philippines war on drugs, with a Government document almost giving police "permission to kill".
A new report from the UN Human Rights Council, released on Thursday, found a heavy-handed focus on national security and combatting illegal drugs had led to an array of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions.
"The underpinning focus on national security threats — real and inflated — has led to serious human rights violations, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials," the report said.
The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) said it "ultimately cannot verify the number of extrajudicial killings without further investigation".
"The most conservative figure, based on government data, suggests that since July 2016, 8,663 people have been killed — with other estimates of up to triple that number," the report said.
Rodrigo Duterte, who vowed to "kill criminals" during his 2016 presidential campaign, launched a war on drugs in the Philippines, where a 2015 survey found 1.8 million were drug users.
On his first day as President, Mr Duterte appointed a new National Police Chief who immediately issued a government circular, or document, launching the anti-drugs campaign Double Barrell.
The document featured terms like "negation" and "neutralisation" of "drug personalities".
"Such ill-defined and ominous language, coupled with repeated verbal encouragement by the highest level of state officials to use lethal force, may have emboldened police to treat the circular as permission to kill," the report said.
The report notes there are also accounts of widespread drug-related killings carried out by unidentified "vigilantes".
The ABC approached presidential spokesperson Harry Roque for comment.
The UN report said: "The Government denies that there is a policy to kill people who use drugs and states that all deaths occur during legitimate police operations."
Children are 'collateral damage' in drug war
The report found 73 children had been killed in the campaign against illegal drugs.
Of those, 62 were boys and 11 girls, although the figures were not exhaustive. The youngest victim was five months old, it said.
Despite the "credible allegations of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings", the report said "there has been near impunity for such violations".
The Philippines Government has cited only one case where police officers were convicted over drug-related killings — the murder of Kian delos Santos, aged 17.
That conviction was largely due to the emergence of CCTV footage and public outrage following the teenager's death.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) last week released a report detailing how children had become "collateral damage" in the Philippines drug war, saying 101 children had been killed as targets or bystanders between 2016 and 2018 alone.
One child whose father was killed by death squads, given the pseudonym Jennifer, said she was "confused because I still don't understand why".
"Why my Papa? Of all the people here, why did they pick my father? I am so angry," she said in the HRW report.
The group said: "Police showed little to no regard for the safety and welfare of children, often conducting raids in the middle of the night while the entire family was at home.
"In many raids, children witnessed the killing of a parent, or were present while their parent was dragged away and shot," the HRW report said.
The report said the enduring harm went beyond the violence of the raids, with many children suffering "psychological distress after witnessing the killing of a loved one".
'Red-tagging' and COVID-19 used to curtail freedom of expression
The UN report also pointed out that "red-tagging" — labelling people and groups as communists or terrorists — had been "a persistent and powerful threat to civil society and freedom of expression".
"Such public labelling has proved extremely dangerous," the report said, with human rights defenders receiving death threats or disappearing.
UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet said the Philippines faced major challenges, including "structural poverty, inequality, armed conflict, frequent natural disasters and now the COVID-19 crisis", but urged the Government to abide by human rights.
"Unfortunately, the report has documented deep-seated impunity for serious human rights violations, and victims have been deprived of justice for the killings of their loved ones. Their testimonies are heartbreaking," she said.
She expressed "alarm" at the "clampdown on freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the COVID-19 crisis", including new COVID-19 special-powers legislation, which criminalises the alleged spread of "false information" in the Philippines.
Mr Roque, responding to the coronavirus concerns, maintained the Philippines respected human rights.
"There is no truth to the accusation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the Philippines is using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to clamp down on freedom of expression and to tighten censorship," he said in a statement.
"The unconscionable conduct by individuals or groups to create, perpetrate, or spread false information on the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms does not constitute a right or freedom, but a crime."
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said the UN report "offers convincing proof of the catastrophic human rights situation in the country".
"We urge the Human Rights Council to establish an impartial, independent international body to investigate the carnage of Duterte's 'war on drugs' since this is the only practical way justice will be assured, and perpetrators held accountable," he said.