Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duarte, Philippines has the deadliest drug policy in the world. So dire is the drug crisis (most notable for impinging on various fundamental human rights like life and freedom) that it has been the cause of thousands of deaths and international uproar.
The Duarte Presidency
Rising to the presidency in June 2016, President Duarte immediately embarked on a “war on drugs” that was far from shy about its murderous intent. Only a day before clinching the seat, Duarte addressed a throng of his supporters about killing off drug users and pushers if he made it to the presidential palace.
By 2017, only 14 months into his presidency, Duarte’s war on drugs had claimed more than 12,000 lives, mostly poor Filipinos from slums. Conservative projections are that by 2022 when Duarte has spent his entire term, the murderous policy will have claimed more than 60,000 lives.
The Problems with Duarte’s War on Drugs
The nature of the war on drugs in the Philippines presents complex problems, which will certainly undermine the ability to effect any change before Duarte’s presidential term ends. First, Duarte’s war on drugs receives significant support from a complacent police department that works in close partnership with hired hitmen, commonly referred to as death squads. Even so, the problem of death squads collaborating with police departments to carry out hits on drug users and peddlers did not only begin with the ascent of Duarte to the presidency. Prior to his presidency, many cities and municipalities in the Philippines have had mayors and other government officials owning death squads to rid their jurisdictions of people involved in crime. With a history of death squad killings, it is possibly unlikely that 2022 will see a full turn from the current war on drugs.
As the crisis persists, many Filipinos are resigning to the reality that the police departments are compromised. Bereaved families now understand all clear that reporting to the police about death squads is vain – justice never arrives, and if it ever will, it will take ages.
Locally, Duarte’s “war on drugs” has received opposition and criticism from different corners of the government. The most notable ones were Senator Leila de Lima, Senator Antonio Triallanes IV, and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s reproach for Duarte’s administration’s cruel drug policies. In all cases, the government retaliated. It brought forth politically motivated charges against de Lima, revoked Triallanes amnesty awarded by the previous administration, and motivated the removal of Sereno. These high-profile cases depict the extent to which the Duarte administration will go to suppress criticism of its actions.
Three Years Later
In November 2018, Philippines’ drug agency, Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) estimated 4 to 5 million users of illegal drugs nationally. Only four months later, President Duarte placed his estimate at 7 to 8 million drug users. In 2015, DDB’s estimate was 1.8 million users against the president’s 3 to 4 million a year later and in 2017. On both accounts, drug use among Filipinos has increased drastically over the last three years.
As the “war on drugs” persists and Duarte promises even harsher anti-narcotics measures in future, the number of fatalities in the war is anticipated to increase. By late 2018, the number of deaths in the “drug war” had risen to about 23,000 as reported by the Philippine National Police (PNP). These deaths represent killings by death squads and other unidentified gunmen and are labeled “homicides under investigation”. Also, they have classified separately from the 4,948 cases accounted for as deaths occurring during police operations.
What Next Before 2022?
Internally, upsetting the Duarte Administration will yield fierce reprisal as has been seen from high-profile critics. With law enforcement working with this cruel government, it is unlikely that civil action can break the deadlock that now places millions in danger of extrajudicial killings. Complicating the situation further is the support that Duarte receives from most Filipinos who are not affected by the war on drugs. From that support, Duarte remains popular among richer demographics; away from poorer inner cities.
Mounting international pressure has also received considerable opposition from Duarte himself. Specifically, his announcement that Philippines would exit the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the court’s decision to launch a preliminary investigation into the “war on drugs” killings and later open a full investigation if necessary.
Whether DDB or Duarte’s estimates of drug use in the Philippines is correct and the other false, either way, the success of the “war on drugs” implies the death of millions of Filipinos. Based on the history of international politics; and most recently the case, Sudan’s ousted president, Omar Ahmad al-Bashir, it is unlikely that ICC will offer any immediate solution to Duarte’s cruel regime. Generally, prosecuting a sitting President is virtually impossible as in the case of al-Bashir.
Rehab for men and women affected by drugs in the Philippines should be an option, but it is unlikely that the current administration has the grace to consider taking the treatment path. With Duarte explicitly intending to extend his “war on drugs” and make it harsher, we will probably see the number of deaths rise scores of thousands in the next couple of years if he goes through with that plan. Increased international pressure to protect human rights is required urgently to prevent further unnecessary deaths in the country. Three years on, thwarting the “war on drugs” and replacing it with a more humane approach to a sober society is needed urgently in the Philippines.