The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to set up an investigation into mass killings during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, a step activists said was long overdue.

Duterte’s government says police have killed about 6,600 people in shootouts with suspected drug dealers since he was elected in 2016 on a platform of crushing crime. Activists say the death toll is at least 27,000.

The first resolution on the Philippines, led by Iceland, was adopted by a vote of 18 countries in favour and 14 against, including China. Fifteen countries abstained from the vote, including Japan.

“This is not just a step towards paying justice for the thousands of families of victims of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, but it is also a message that we collectively send out to those who have praised President Duterte,” said Ellecer “Budit” Carlos of the Manila-based rights group iDEFEND.

“This war on drugs, as we have repeatedly said, it’s a sham war.”

Philippine activists say tens of thousands of people are being killed as police terrorize poor communities, using cursory drug “watch lists” to identify suspected users or dealers, and executing many in the guise of sting operations.

Police deny that, saying all the killings were in self-defence.

Myca Ulpina, a three-year-old girl killed on June 29 near Manila, was among the latest and youngest known victims. Police say her father, Renato, used his daughter as a human shield.

‘Maliciously partisan’

Duterte’s spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, questioned the validity of a resolution not backed by the majority of council members, saying Filipinos overwhelmingly backed the president’s unique leadership approach.

“The resolution is grotesquely one-sided, outrageously narrow, and maliciously partisan,” Panelo said in a lengthy statement.

“It reeks of nauseating politics completely devoid of respect for the sovereignty of our country, even as it is bereft of the gruesome realities of the drug menace.”

Asked by reporters in Manila whether he would allow UN rights officials access to investigate, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said, ‘Let them state their purpose and I will review it.’ (Bullit Marquez/The Associated Press)

The delegation from the Philippines, which is among the council’s 47 members, had lobbied hard against the resolution, which asks national authorities to prevent extrajudicial killings and co-operate with UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who is expected to report her findings in June 2020.

Philippines Ambassador Evan Garcia said the Duterte administration was committed to upholding justice, adding, “We will not tolerate any form of disrespect or acts of bad faith. There will be consequences, far-reaching consequences.”

Laila Matar of New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized his comments.

“It was quite clear that they threatened consequences for those who had supported the resolution, which in turn makes us concerned for the many human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists on the ground,” she told the briefing.

Duterte, asked by reporters in Manila whether he would allow UN rights officials access to investigate, said, “Let them state their purpose and I will review it.”

If Duterte allows the investigation and it proceeds impartially, Panelo said, “We are certain its result will only lead to the humiliation of the investigators, as well as of Iceland and the 17 other nations.”