The new ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines

During his campaign for the presidency of the Philippines last year, Rodrigo Duterte made the chilling promise that if elected he would kill 100,000 drug dealers as part of his plan to end the supply of illegal drugs. At the time, these statements were dismissed by many commentators as populist sloganeering against a hated criminal class. However, since taking office in May last year, Duterte has gone about implementing his election pledge, instigating a campaign of police and extra-judicial killings of those associated with the drug trade that has left over 7,000 Filipinos dead. But there is strong evidence that the justification for this crackdown is much weaker than Duterte suggests, and that he is using it as a pretext for consolidating his own political position.

Duterte’s ‘law and order’ campaign

Duterte describes himself as a radical socialist, however his electoral appeal came in a large part from his vociferous defence of traditional law and order values in a country that remains staunchly socially conservative. During his tenure as the mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, he claimed to have created “one of the safest cities in the world” through his violent policies, which included the use of ‘death squads’ to kill those suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade.

An important element of Duterte’s presidential campaign was his pledge to apply these policies to the entire country, insisting that they were required to combat the country’s apparent drug crisis. “In three to six months,” he said, “I will stop drugs and criminality”. This narrative proved extremely popular with the electorate, and in the June 2016 presidential elections Duterte received almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Despite this popular endorsement, the narrative created by Duterte bears little resemblance to reality. Firstly, Duterte’s claim to have created “one of the safest cities in the world” in Davao is a fabrication. Duterte first became mayor in 1988, and was in charge for the majority of the next 30 years. According to official data released by the Philippines National Police, Davao had the highest rates of murder, and the second highest rates of rape, of any city in the country between 2010 to 2015. High crime rates are likely a result of Duterte’s decision to tolerate, and often encourage, vigilante attacks on criminals, with human rights groups estimating that 1,400 extra-judicial killings of street children and alleged criminals have taken place since 1998.

Secondly, Duterte’s justification of his policies as a means of saving a country riddled by addiction and drug-related violence is also questionable. He claims that there are currently 4 million drug users in the Philippines, and projects that there could be as many as 10 million by 2020. However, the country’s own drug authorities put the figure much lower. Furthermore, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the prevalence rate for drug use by Filipinos at 2.3%, which is roughly half the global average. Duterte’s policies therefore appear to be an extreme response to an exaggerated problem.

Duterte’s presidency

Since becoming President last May, Duterte has fulfilled his campaign promises by expanding his ‘war on drugs’ from Davao to the rest of the Philippines. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 10,000 Filipinos have been killed by police or vigilantes so far. The government argue that police only kill in self-defence during anti-drugs operations, and claim that they do not condone extra-judicial killings by vigilantes. However human rights groups claim that the majority of police killings are executions, which the police justify by planting drugs or weapons on the victims, and that the vigilante killings are incited by the authorities. During speeches, Duterte has regularly encouraged Filipinos to carry out extra-judicial killings. His disavowal of any association with the vigilantes is, therefore, unconvincing.

Amnesty International investigated 33 incidents of drug-related killings in 20 cities across the country. They found that the vast majority of the killings were “unlawful and deliberate killings carried out by government order or with its complicity or acquiescence”. They also found that police officers routinely “kill in cold blood unarmed people suspected of using or selling drugs”, and then plant evidence to suggest they acted in self-defence. Amnesty concludes that the government is guilty of widespread breaches of human rights, such as the right to life and the right to a fair trial.

As part of his ‘war on drugs’, Duterte has also reinstated the death penalty for drug offences, lowered the age of criminal responsibility to ten, and introduced mandatory drug tests at schools and workplaces.

Finally, the drug war has provided a pretext for Duterte to crush political opposition. The opposition mayors of three cities have been killed during anti-drug operations, and Duterte moved last week to abolish the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent government agency that has been the harshest critic of Duterte’s policies.

Despite the chaos and growing authoritarianism Duterte’s drug policies have led to, they remain popular with the public. According to an April 2017 poll, 78% of Filipinos are satisfied by the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs, only slightly down from 85% last December.

International reaction

Condemnation from human rights groups has been immediate and sustained, with much of the information we have only becoming available thanks to the work of NGOs that monitor the number of killings.

There has also been widespread international censure: for example, the EU delivered a resolution in March 2017 that condemned Duterte’s crackdown on political opponents and human rights groups.

However, criticism from the US and UK has been less forthcoming. President Trump praised Duterte for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem” in a leaked phone call, while Liam Fox recently referred to the “shared values and shared interests” of the UK and the Philippines during a trade visit to the country. Neither Trump nor Theresa May has officially condemned any aspect of Duterte’s policies, and the Philippines continue to be considered a key ally in the region.

The Philippines has a rapidly expanding economy and has recently discovered natural gas reserves. It is therefore considered a valuable future trade partner. These factors suggest that an increase in international pressure on Duterte to halt his bloody ‘war on drugs’ is unlikely.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue