The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has been taking the ‘war on drugs’ to extremes that have shocked the world. DDN asks what, if anything, the international community can do to stop the man known as ‘the punisher’.
When Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines in May and vowed to ‘eradicate crime’ in the country within six months, those who voted for him may have had some idea of his likely approach.
His long stint as mayor of Davao City in the south of the country saw human rights groups accuse him of tolerating or even supporting the extra-judicial killings of offenders, and he stated on the campaign trail that he intended to ‘fatten the fishes’ in Manila Bay on the bodies of dead criminals. Unsurprisingly, his short presidency has so far been characterised by astonishing brutality.
More than 3,000 people – mainly drug dealers and drug users – are estimated to have fallen victim to Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’, and while just over a third of these are thought to have been killed by police, human rights observers believe the others could be the victims of the president’s open call for vigilante action against those suspected of drugs offences. Known as ‘Duterte Harry’ and ‘the punisher’, Duterte has now asked his people for a six-month extension to fulfil his crime reduction pledge, as he ‘cannot kill them all’.
While the killings have inevitably provoked international outrage it has so far been met with defiance. Duterte has threatened to pull his country out of the UN, while seeking closer economic ties with China and Russia, and his response to US criticism of his actions was to call Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’. As he also continues to enjoy very high approval ratings among his electorate, it’s hard to see what can be done to end the violence.
In August an open letter signed by more than 300 NGOs implored the UN’s drug control bodies to call for an ‘immediate stop’ to the killings. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yury Fedotov said that his agency was ‘greatly concerned’ by the reports of extrajudicial killings and that he joined the UN secretary general’s condemnation of the ‘apparent endorsement’ of them (DDN, September, page 4). While the UNODC stood ‘ready to further engage with the Philippines… to bring drug traffickers to justice with the appropriate legal safeguards in line with international standards and norms,’ he said, the killings contravened ‘the provisions of the international drug control conventions’ and did not ‘serve the cause of justice’.
Given the circumstances, however, did that go far enough? ‘The UNODC statement could have been more strongly worded,’ Bangkok-based senior policy officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Gloria Lai, tells DDN. ‘The statement by the INCB [International Narcotics Control Board] was stronger in that president Werner Sipp called on the Philippines government to “issue an immediate and unequivocal condemnation and denunciation of extrajudicial actions against individuals suspected of involvement in the illicit drug trade or of drug use, to put an immediate stop to such actions, and to ensure that the perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice in full observance of due process and the rule of law.”’
Statements by UN special rapporteurs on the right to health and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions have also been strong, she points out, but there’s more that international drug control bodies could be doing.
‘Policy makers and officials in the Philippines – ranging from the police to the judiciary to health officials to political representatives in the congress and senate – might welcome technical assistance in developing and implementing evidence-based and humane drug policy responses,’ she says. This help could cover the health and welfare of detainees in ‘horrifically overcrowded prisons’, the more than 700,000 people who have surrendered themselves to the authorities ‘mostly for using or having used drugs, or simply being arbitrarily placed ona published list of so-called drug suspects’, as well as provision of drug treatment and harm reduction services. It could also address some ‘alarming legislative proposals’ including one to re-instate the death penalty, abolished a decade ago, and another to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine.
Agencies such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) could also offer advice and guidance on drug policy issues, she continues, particularly in terms of contributing evidence to policy debates in the Philippines that helps to counter ‘baseless and false claims’ about the extent of the country’s drug-related problems ‘made by the president and other officials’. Among these are that people who use shabu (crystal meth) ‘suffer from brain shrinkage and become no longer human’, she points out. The UNODC could also extend its practical assistance, as it has done with Myanmar, she adds.
In the meantime, however, the killing is showing no sign of letting up, and with Duterte asking for his six-month extension to ‘finish the job’, what, realistically, could other countries be doing to address the situation?
‘They could try to boost incentives for shifting this approach, for example by raising concerns and supporting alternative humane and effective approaches in UN drug policy and human rights forums,’ she states. ‘But one perspective is that Duterte has continued to incite murder because it has served him well in gaining popular support and winning the presidential election, so he has little incentive to change this approach.’