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Duterte's War on Drugs: A Problem and its Roots

CW: mentions discussion of drug abuse

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is a relatively controversial figure. There is much to discuss concerning his term (started in May 2016), from his approach to foreign policy, to his handling of COVID-19, or even his general execution of democracy in the Philippines.

What concerns today’s discussion is a human rights crisis that has been left unaddressed for far too long. While the issue has piqued media interest in spurts over the years of Duterte’s term, the long-lasting consequences of his policies still remain within the social climate of the Philippines. As the end of his term approaches , it is pertinent to reflect upon a major aspect of his presidency: Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The Policy and its Execution

It is impossible to discuss the War on Drugs without emphasizing its true goal: to effectively lower crime and illegal drug use in the Philippines. And, to its credit, Duterte’s policy worked. The number of drug users in the Philippines has declined 50% after three years of Duterte’s term according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Philippines’ Dangerous Drug Board. But it is a very extreme plan. Unlawful killings of alleged drug abusers are carried out by police without any kind of due process. Victims are killed under police custody rather than tried. Vigilantes are encouraged to incur violence if it means eradicating all drug use. The number of drug suspects killed in anti-drug operations has increased to 5,856 since the crackdown began in July 2016, according to recent data from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). That number has likely risen, as this anti-drug campaign is an extremely intensive program that Duterte intends to continue throughout the full run of his term. Duterte’s last State of the Nation address defended the war on drugs, saying that “we still have a long way in our fight against the proliferation of drugs.”

The true essence of Duterte’s drug policy is best captured through his direct quote. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews ... there's 3 million drug addicts. There are. I'd be happy to slaughter them.” These words give the perfect snapshot of Duterte’s ideologies. He is a man passionate for his country, verbally threatening to kill those who “destroy [his] country,” or “destroy the young people of [his] country.” He uses violence to achieve his goals, no matter the cost, even when that violence is heavily disproportionate to someone’s crime. That is what makes him extreme and even dangerous.

International Status

On June 14th, 2021, Fatou Bensouda, the high prosecutor of the International Crime Court (ICC) requested for an investigation into the drug crackdown in the Philippines after a preliminary examination into the situation was conducted. There was reasonable suspicion, as stated in the report, that “Police and other government officials planned, ordered, and sometimes directly perpetrated extrajudicial killings.” The ICC reviewed reports of police killing thousands during the official law enforcement operations. They also noted that “state officials at the highest levels of government also spoke publicly and repeatedly in support of extrajudicial killings, and created a culture of impunity for those who committed them.” Vigilante justice was a common method of Duterte, which meant allowing private citizens to kill any alleged drug abusers. In some cases, the ICC reports that certain private citizens were paid off to do so. The ICC’s request is still being processed.

In the same month, ex-mayor Montasser Sabal was killed in police custody in a rather brutal and ambiguous manner. Sabal was identified as a narco-politician and he allegedly shot an officer during his transportation to Manilla. Details about the officer who was shot were not released, and an investigation led by Alfegar Triambulo is currently underway