The Philippines’ War on Drugs: Human Rights Concerns and Prospects for ASEAN

The article is originally published at Thinking ASEAN Issue 19/January 2017.

I am a drug pusher, do not emulate me.” This is the warning message that has appeared on crude cardboards placed atop the dead bodies found throughout the Philippines. More than 6,000 people have been killed since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, and the figure is still rising. While most Filipinos are satisfied with this war on drugs, some are alarmed at the brutality of these deaths.

The ongoing anti-narcotics crusade in the Philippines is the fulfillment of Duterte’s campaign promise that catapulted him to the presidency. Nicknamed the Punisher, Duterte believes that his peace-and-order platform, which focused on eliminating drugs and related crimes, will encourage more businesses, investments, and tourism that will bring economic benefits for the country. As of December 20, 2016, about 950,000 drug pushers and addicts have surrendered to the police, while more than 41,000 drug personalities have been arrested.1 Police claims these developments have led to a remarkable reduction in street crimes, especially in Metro Manila. 

Despite this, Duterte’s war on drugs has polarized the country. According to a nationwide poll taken in December 2016, some 85 percent of the 1,500 Filipinos interviewed are satisfied with the president’s crackdown on illegal drugs.2 For the government, the survey results validate Duterte’s landslide victory in the elections. However, a growing number of Filipinos has raised concerns as the death toll of suspected drug personalities mounts. In fact, while there is an overwhelming support for Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs, the same survey reveals that 71 percent of the respondents think that it is “very important” for these suspects to be caught alive.

Controversies Arising From Duterte’s Drug Crusade

Duterte’s nationwide operation is believed to be linked with human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. This has resulted in the increasing death toll of mostly poor Filipinos in recent months. These people are indiscriminately identified as drug addicts and pushers without due process, in violation of their legal and constitutional rights. Eventually, they are shot dead during police operations or killed by unidentified gunmen.

These human rights violations and extrajudicial killings are allegedly state-inspired and even purportedly state-sponsored. Police authorities are believed to be encouraged and emboldened by Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order against drug suspects who resist arrest. His directive to the police officers is clear: “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you.”3 Aside from the police, vigilante groups and ordinary citizens are offered million-peso bounties for the capture or death of drug lords, resulting in the current spate of killings in the Philippines.

A nationwide poll reveals that Filipinos are alarmed at the growing death toll resulting from the Duterte administration’s war on drugs. Taken in December 2016, the survey reveals that 69 percent of Filipinos regard extrajudicial killings as a serious concern.4 What is even more alarming for the body politic is the fact that 78 percent of these respondents worry that they, or someone they know, could become victims of extrajudicial killing, possibly due to a wrong identification by police authorities or vigilante groups.

Despite the widespread fear over the growing death toll, Duterte caused even more alarm after making controversial statements regarding executing drug suspects. He initially admitted to killing them while he was still the mayor of Davao City, a province located in southern Philippines. “In Davao, I went around on a big bike and I would just patrol the streets... looking for an encounter to kill. I used to do it personally. Just to show to the policemen that if I can do it, why can’t you?”5 says Duterte. Yet after drawing criticisms from his statement, Duterte eventually dismissed it as a “joke.” He rebuffed allusions that he was a “killer” for allowing extrajudicial killings against his fellow Filipinos. But whether it is true that he has killed drug suspects or not, it is clearly evident that Duterte is disturbingly obsessed with eradicating the drug menace plaguing the country.

Duterte’s alarming pronouncements, along with the increasing casualties in his war on drugs, have attracted criticisms from the international community.  At the start of his campaign, Duterte has been condemned by the United Nations (UN) for the increasing death toll attributed to police operations and vigilante killings. In particular, the UN Human Rights Council criticizes his shoot-to-kill order to the police, without solid evidence against drug dealers and users. The fear is that this will ultimately trample on human rights and undermine justice. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has expressed concerns over the endorsement and contributions of Philippine government officials to this bloody campaign against drugs, which it sees as tantamount to becoming a serious crime against humanity. 

Defending Duterte’s Drive Against Drugs

In response to the growing number of critics, the Duterte administration is rationalizing its tough and punitive approach on its war against drugs. The government insists that most of the killings by the police were due to self-defense measures. Moreover, some officials argue that criticizing these deaths and labelling them as extrajudicial or illegal only demoralize police officers who are doing their job. In a way, the administration justifies that these drug suspects do not deserve due process, since they have already victimized so many people.

The ruthless deterrence against drug dealing and drug use, with its accompanying justifications, is not only apparent in the Philippines. In fact, it is common in Asia to execute people, either through death penalty or extra-judicial killings. According to a report by the drug policy institute International Harm Reduction Association, countries as diverse as China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia have executed drug traffickers since 2010.6 Indonesia, in particular, shares the same hard-hitting resolve as the Philippines in eliminating drugs. Since becoming president in Indonesia, Joko Widodo has also named ‘drugs’ and its proliferation as the number one problem for the country, just as Duterte has tagged it as a national crisis in the Philippines. But while Widodo advocated for the application of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, Duterte’s ferocious and violent method to combat illegal drugs borders on extrajudicial killings with blatant violation of human rights.  

Before Duterte, There Was Thaksin’s War on Drugs

The ongoing war on drugs in the Philippines brings to memory the previous anti-drugs crusade in Thailand that bore striking similarities. Like Duterte’s campaign, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his own, all-out war against drugs in 2003. In his campaign, Thaksin labelled drug dealers as enemies of the state and sponsored the murder of thousands of drug suspects. His anti-drugs operations were carried out through the collaboration between local governors and police officers. These government officials compiled several “blacklists” that included the names of suspected drug personalities, which led to their arrests and, in many cases, extrajudicial killings. The Thai police are given a quota and an incentive to both pressure and reward them to kill suspected drug dealers/users, even without solid evidences against them. 

After several years, local and international investigations on Thaksin’s war on drugs declared that it was a disastrous campaign. According to Thailand’s Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), of the thousands of people killed as part of the war on drugs since 2003, half of them had nothing to do with drugs.7 In addition, many drug lords were spared, only the smaller drug dealers at the bottom of the hierarchy were killed. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), the Myanmar-Laos-Thailand drug routes remained intact. This so-called Golden Triangle, which is one of the world’s biggest drug-producing and trafficking hubs, is believed to be protected by the country’s bureaucracy and business elites.    

Though there was significant reduction in drug use/trade in Thailand, there were devastating consequences, which point to several factors. Foremost of which was the abuse of extralegal powers by police authorities in carrying out their shoot-to-kill operations based on flawed ‘blacklists,’ which also included people with no connection to drugs. Moreover, the culture of impunity, rampant corruption, lack of police professionalism, and links between drug lords and political elites rendered Thailand’s war on drugs ineffective in the long term.8

The Duterte administration must take note of and consider the political circumstances of Thaksin’s beleaguered and brutal anti-drugs campaign as warning signs. After all, the corruption, abuse, and impunity confronting Thailand are also evident in the Philippines. Though Thaksin may have declared success in his own war, it only produced some fleeting gains. Likewise, Duterte may have gained some wins, but his battle against drugs may not guarantee an overall victory. Similar to Thailand’s experience, the ongoing war against drugs in the Philippines may eventually lose traction as more innocent lives are lost through human rights violations and extrajudicial killings.

And if the spate of killings continues unchecked, then it may undermine the reputation of the Philippines in the international community. Notably, Duterte’s brutal anti-drugs crusade runs counter to the Philippines’ long-held ideals of democracy and human rights, which are protected and promoted through its institutions. As a democratic country, the Philippines is expected to safeguard the rights of its citizens and uphold the rule of law. Yet, the current administration seems to overlook these values and principles in the name of eradicating drugs and controlling crimes. 

Duterte’s contempt for due process and his authoritarian tendencies also discredit the Philippines’ human rights advocacy and democratic credentials in the international community, particularly in ASEAN. The growing militarization of the police force and the autocratic leanings of the Duterte administration erode the Philippine’s image as one of the oldest democracies in the region. Moreover, the current extrajudicial killings undermine the country’s credibility as one of the active members in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Interestingly, the Philippines holds the most number of international human rights treaties ratified among the 10 member states in the region, which would appear increasingly paradoxical given the incidences of human rights violations in the country.

The War on Drugs vs. the Fight For Human Rights

The Philippines’ war on drugs has certainly captured the attention of its ASEAN neighbors. Most, if not all, share similar objectives yet navigate through different political circumstances. For democratic societies such as Indonesia, the constant challenge is to bear the difficult balancing act of promoting national security while upholding human rights. For those with authoritarian governments such as Laos and Vietnam, the important goal is to maintain peace and order at all costs, preferably with fewer international criticisms regarding blood on their hands.       

Indeed, the current developments in the Philippines have reawakened various political debates that resonate within ASEAN. The tension lies between prioritizing security and order on the one hand, and protecting human rights on the other. Essentially, the question remains whether or not the achievement of national goals by the state justifies its questionable approach. To win this war against drugs, should governments then be allowed to display lethal force at the expense of human rights?

It is interesting to take note of how the rest of ASEAN will look at the Philippines’ war on drugs. It is highly likely that what is happening in the Philippines may be used as a justification for other governments to carry out police force without due process. If a long-established democracy such as the Philippines is perceived to employ extrajudicial killings in its fight against illegal drugs, what is to hinder other ASEAN countries from doing (or continue doing) the same? Essentially, the ongoing anti-drugs crusade in the Philippines may feed into the rationale of other governments in ASEAN to defy individual human rights (particularly those of drug suspects) to preserve the collective security of the majority. If other ASEAN countries will adopt Duterte’s anti-narcotics operation bordering on extrajudicial killings, then such possibility will be a huge setback towards ASEAN’s advocacy on human rights.

This alarming trend in the Philippines implies several unfortunate insights regarding human rights that are likely shared by some countries in ASEAN. The mass murder of drug suspects tolerated by the Duterte administration reveals that mere human suspicion (without factual evidence) is enough to shoot someone dead. In a broader perspective, this development indicates how governments may perceive “some people as less human than others, that there are lives worth protecting and lives worth sacrificing for the sake of a political project.”9 It also brings to light doubts and reservations on the permanence and universality of human rights in this part of the world, and how sometimes it can be subject to negotiations and compromises depending on who is in power. 

The Philippines and ASEAN in the War against Drugs

Despite its many controversies, the war against illegal drugs must be fought not only in the Philippines but also within ASEAN. Drug trafficking and narcotics trade are longstanding transnational threats that need to be seriously addressed. And since illegal drug operations are increasingly going beyond a country’s sovereign borders, neighboring states within ASEAN have to work together to combat them. In this sense, Duterte’s plea at the 2016 ASEAN Summit in Laos for regional cooperation is an important step in the right direction towards a “drug-free” ASEAN.

However, this battle should not be brutally waged at the cost of innocent lives. Human rights should not be suspended to save a nation from its drug problems. Though in the short term it may deliver instant results by way of a rising body count, the long-term implication of it however will be the blood stains of innocent casualties that may leave the nation weeping. 

Despite its many controversies, the Philippines’ ongoing war on drugs has largely gained support from its ASEAN neighbors. Brunei, Cambodia, and Singapore have publicly praised the Philippines’ anti-narcotics crusade during Duterte’s recent state visits in these countries. Indonesia is contemplating imitating Duterte’s hard-hitting stance against drug personalities despite having some of the toughest drug laws in the world. Meanwhile, other countries in ASEAN are quietly observing how the Philippines’ war on drugs will evolve, and are curiously monitoring the impact of its ongoing battle.

As the Philippines prepares for its ASEAN Chairmanship in 2017, it is highly likely that the Duterte administration will put its advocacy on illegal drugs and transnational crimes on top of the regional agenda. The country is expected to further elevate its anti-narcotics campaign with the aim of pushing it beyond its borders in pursuit of a drug-free ASEAN. However, such well-meaning advocacy at the same time puts the Philippines on the spotlight for its ruthless method and brutal force in its war on drugs. This may not bode well for a country with a long-held reputation of having a vibrant democracy with a strong foundation on human rights. It is hoped that the Duterte administration will find success in reducing the proliferation of illegal drugs without violating the rule of law. And that the Philippine government will be able to safeguard national security without trampling on human rights, especially those of the innocent.

Such hope could be transformed into a more sustainable objective that, if pursued effectively in the long term with as much political will, could put the Philippines in a better light. The Philippines’ experience in its crusade against illegal drugs, if fought with less violence and brutality, could be an insightful case for other ASEAN countries to learn from. Thailand has already gained a lot of battle scars, traumatized from its own war on drugs. Thus, the Philippines should make every effort not to suffer the same fate as Thailand.

The Duterte administration is riding high on the positive results of its campaign, but not without its devastating consequences. To be fair, it deserves commendation with the recent decrease in drug trade, reduction of drug-related crimes, and voluntary surrender of drug lords, addicts, and pushers in the Philippines. Yet, for most Filipinos, the war on drugs may be worth the fight, but it should neither be at the expense of innocent casualties, nor should it be in plain disregard for human rights and the rule of law. It is indeed ironic and unfortunate that Duterte’s ruthless anti-narcotics campaign has consequently induced and promoted fear among the very people he wants to protect from the apparent evils of illegal drugs.

The cardboard message on dead bodies declaring: “I am a drug pusher, do not emulate me,” is certainly a disturbing symbol on the brutality of this ongoing battle in the Philippines. Yet the cardboard sign held by some Filipinos arguing: “We could all be drug pushers; all lives matter,” must also serve as a striking reminder to the Duterte administration on the perils and destruction that this war on drugs has wrought.

*Andrea Chloe Wong is a Senior Lecturer at Miriam College in Metro Manila, the Philippines, and a Non-Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, Hawaii, USA.

Endnotes

Michael Bueza, “In Numbers: The Philippines’ War on Drugs,” Rappler, 20 December 2016. http://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/145814-numbers-statistics-philippines-war-drugs, (accessed 21 December 2016) 

“SWS: 4 of 5 Filipinos Fear Being EJK Victim,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 December 2016, pp A16.

Julliane Love De Jesus, “Duterte Tells Cops: Will Die for You if you Fulfil Your Duty,” Inquirer.net, 1 July 2016, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/793794/duterte-tells-cops-will-die-for-you-if-you-fulfill-your-duty, (accessed 1 November 2016).

“SWS: 78% of Filipinos Fear Becoming Victims of EJK,” CNN Philippines, 19 December 2016, http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/12/19/sws-78-percent-fear-EJK.html, (accessed 21 December 2016). 

Marlon Ramos, “Duterte: I Personally Killed Drug Suspects,” Inquirer.Net, 14 December 2016, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/853420/duterte-i-personally-killed-drug-suspects, (accessed 20 December 2016).

Patrick Gallahue and Rick Lines, “The Death Penalty for Drug Offences, Global Overview 2010,” International Human Reduction Association, pp. 1-53, https://www.hri.global/files/2010/06/16/IHRA_DeathPenaltyReport_Web1.pdf, (accessed 1 November 2016).

“Most Killed in Thailand’s 2003 Drug War Not Involved in Drugs, Panel Finds,” Drug War Chronicles, Issue 512, 30 November 2007, http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2007/nov/30/southeast_asia_most_killed_thail, (accessed 10 November 2016). 

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri and Aries Arugay, “Duterte’s War on Drugs: Bitter Lessons from Thailand’s Failed Campaign,” The Conversation, 29 September 2016,  http://theconversation.com/dutertes-war-on-drugs-bitter-lessons-from-thailands-failed-campaign-66096, (accessed 15 November 2016). 

Nicole Curato, “The Philippines’ War vs Drugs: It has been Bloody,” Rappler, 25 July 2016, http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/140817-duterte-war-drugs-bloody, (accessed 2 November 2016).

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