The Philippine War on Drugs

The Philippines, Asia/Pacific

The Philippine War on Drugs refers to the violence inflicted upon suspected drug affiliates by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. Duterte has enforced a hard stance on eradication over rehabilitation when dealing with the crisis. Since his inauguration in June 2016, thousands of people have been killed by police in drug raids, and by unnamed vigilante killers who are rumoured to be executing drug users on behalf of the President. As a result, the war on drugs in the Philippines has made the country the fourth most dangerous in the world, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

The Philippine National Police have been accused of staging murders by planting drugs and weapons on their victims.  While drug users are given the option of registering with authorities in exchange for safety, many of these registered users have still lost their lives due to police brutality. These government-led attacks have impacted children and newborns, especially within poverty-stricken areas. The areas that have been most highly targeted are Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and the National Capital Region.

The war on drugs has been met with international condemnation by organizations like the United Nations and various human rights groups. Duterte’s actions have been described as “crimes against humanity” and a recent UN report called for an “independent, impartial, credible investigation into all allegations of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” In response, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the International Criminal Court and has repeatedly rejected the findings from human rights investigations while intensifying his crackdown, claiming that the drug problem has “worsened.” Meanwhile, the death toll continues to climb, and many of the victims and their families have yet to receive justice.

Allegations of drug-trafficking offenses should be judged in a court of law, not by gunmen on the streets.

Agnes Callamard, Human Rights Activist

Key Facts

Estimated 12,000

People killed

14 Mayors/Deputies


Ongoing since


Population: 106.7 million

Deaths: The government officially records 8,663 deaths, but news organizations and human rights groups claim the death toll is over 12,000.

Surrendered drug users: 1.3 million

Drug related arrests:

  • High valued arrests: 8,185
  • Drug suspects arrested: 220,728

Uninvestigated homicides: more than 16,000 estimated

Drug users in the Philippines: estimated between 1.8 to 4 million

Seized methamphetamine: 40.39 billion pesos (US$796m) seized by police

The Key Actors

Timeline of the crisis

Rodrigo Duterte of the The Partido Demokratiko Pilipino political party was elected President after serving several terms as the Mayor of Davao City.

Duterte urged the Communist Rebels (New People’s Army) and civilians to kill drug lords and drug users.

The Philippine National Police announced that they have killed 30 people in drug raids in the three days since Duterte became president.

Communist Rebels gave their New People’s Army permission to fight in the Drug War alongside Duterte’s forces.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, The Philippines’ largest Islamic rebel group, announced they were open to siding with the government and participating in the drug war.

The Communist Party removes their support for Duterte’s Drug war, citing their concerns of extrajudicial killings.

Duterte threatened to leave the UN after their human rights experts asked him to stop giving vigilantes permission to kill drug suspects on his behalf.

The U.S. State Department expressed concern over Duterte meeting his human rights obligations through his violent approach to the drug war.

Following the September 2 bombing in Davao City that left 14 dead, Duterte declared a state of emergency over the whole country. Duterte declared there would be “ensured coordinated efforts” between the government, police, and military against terrorism and drugs.

A Senior PNP Police Officer told The Guardian he is part of a special operative squad responsible for assassinating people on Duterte’s hit list. The unnamed officer said they either dump the bodies, or label them as “drug lord” or “pusher” to deter investigations into the deaths. He claims he killed 87 people since the beginning of Duterte’s presidency.

Duterte revealed his watch list of people participating in the Filipino drug industry, which includes thousands of police officers, mayors, and officials.

The U.S. halted the sale of 2,600 rifles to the PNP due to  human rights concerns.

The UN Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights released a report stating there was no legitimate proof that the Filipino Government was conducting extrajudicial executions to eradicate their drug problem.

Under pressure from human rights groups, Duterte withdrew the police from the drug war, leaving operations to the Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency with support from The Armed Forces of the Philippines (the military).

Thousands gathered in Manila to protest for and against Duterte’s drug war on the 31st anniversary of the Philippines pro-democracy movement.

Duterte claimed he needs more men and brought some PNP officers back into the drug campaign.

A Reuters investigation revealed police have been intentionally rushing drug suspect victims who are already dead to hospital as an excuse to hide the bodies and tamper with the crime scene.

The mayor of Ozamiz City Reynaldo Parojinog, his wife, and 13 others were killed by police in an early morning raid of his home. Police claimed they had a search warrant and found drugs and excessive weaponry in the residence.

Bulacan police’s “one-time big-time” drug operation left 32 dead and 107 arrested. Among the fatalities was 17 year old Kian delos Santos. His death caused controversy as Police accounts did not match CCTV footage and witness statements of the incident. 19 year old Carl Angelo Arnaiz and their 14 year-old friend Reynaldo de Guzman were also killed. In response, Human Rights Watch repeated their call for a UN investigation, accusing the PNP of deliberately targeting children.

62 Caloocan Police Officers were fired in response to the youth killings. Philippine’s National Capital Region Police Director Oscar Albayalde ordered the department re-ordering to show they did not tolerate police crime.

Duterte admitted to stabbing someone to death as a teenager at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam to justify his administration’s violent approach to cracking down on drugs.

Duterte brought police back into the drug campaign, citing that drug crime is increasing without them.

The number of people killed in anti-drug operations nearly doubled from the previous month.

The UN Human Rights Council released a joint statement supported by 38 member states calling on the Philippines and President Duterte to stop the killings and abuses of the drug war.

Tanauan mayor Antioni Hall was assassinated during a flag raising ceremony. He was the 11th local government official to be killed during the drug war.

Families of drug war victims filed a second petition to the International Criminal Court calling for the indictment of President Duterte for alleged crimes against humanity committed during his drug war.

Senator Trillanes, an outspoken critic of President Duterte, was arrested on charges of rebellion.

Two bombs exploded near a Roman Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippine island of Jolo, which claimed the lives of 15 civilians and five soldiers and wounded 111 others. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Social Weather Station, a social research institution in the Philippines, released their survey findings that 82% of Filipinos were satisfied with Duterte’s drug war. However, 78% were worried that they, or someone they know, might be a victim of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Nevertheless, the National Police Chief of the Philippine, General Oscar Albayalde, questioned the validity of the survey, claiming that “It shouldn’t be surprising that 78 percent are afraid of getting killed. Who isn’t afraid to die, anyway?”


The Philippines formally withdrew from the International Criminal Court after the country’s highest court refused to overrule Duterte’s decision to do so. 

President Duterte announced he would order the police and military to shoot dead anyone “who creates trouble” during COVID-19 lockdowns on the island of Luzon. “Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose,” he added.

After the Philippine seized 756kg of crystal methamphetamine, president Duterte issued a grave threat to drug dealers, “I will kill you,” he said. This occurred a day after the UN found “near impunity” in his drug war.

President Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows for warrantless arrests and for suspects to be jailed without charge for weeks. While the law was intended to prevent and penalize terrorism, human rights groups worry it will be used by Duterte to attack political opponents and restrict free speech.

Duterte announced he wanted to reintroduce the death penalty for drug offenders during his State of the Nation Address.

In a televised interview, President Duterte said that he suspected extrajudicial killings may have occurred under his drug crackdown. He suggested that this was likely due to rivalry between syndicates or for stealing drug money. For years, Duterte’s critics and human rights groups have claimed that extrajudicial killings have taken place. 

Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, stated there is “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity have
been committed during Duterte’s war on drugs. The resulting report listed murder, torture, and infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm.

In a speech before the UN Human Rights CouncilPhilippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra admits that police did not properly examine many weapons used in drug war killings, refuting usual police claims that drug suspects are usually killed after fighting back. 

The Manila Standard has reported on May 25, 2021 that the Philippine national Police will collaborate with DOJ to investigate EJKs, illegal drug operations and other related cases. On Friday, Justice Secretary Menardo Gueverra and PNP Chief Gen.Guillermo Lorenzo Eleazar, discussed these ‘two areas of immediate concern,’ and Guevarra announced that the PNP will be signing an agreement for closer cooperation. ‘What is significant right now is that the DOJ has been given free access [to the 61 cases where clear liability was established], something that did not happen in previous years, thereby making our review rather difficult.’

On Friday, CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia positively welcomed the announcement, saying that it ‘is significant in rebuilding confidence and trust in the institution and the government in general.’ She encouraged the PNP ‘to sustain this momentum of fostering a positive attitude towards human rights and translate these commitments into actual effects on the ground.’


Bulacan police director Col.Lawrence Cajipe announced that 7 drug suspects were killed in a police shootout and 53 drug suspects were arrested in sting operations in the towns of Pulilan, Bustos, Pandi, Obando, and Balagtas. During the string of separate operations in 21 towns and 3 cities beginning on May 28, 127 plastic sachets of shabu (crystal meth) were also recovered.

On 1 Jun 2021, Police Gen.Guillermo Eleazar stated that the Department of Justice (DOJ) cannot release all of the 61 cases as planned, and only 53 will be released. ‘Through our arrangement with the DOJ, only the resolved cases will be forwarded to them,’ he said. In a public address aired the night before, Duterte said that the drug war documents are not public documents, as they involve national security issues. Justice Sec.Menardo Guevana then acknowledged in response that the justice department will ‘play it by ear.’

In a 57-page report, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda formally requested judicial authorization to investigate the crimes against humanity case filed against President Duterte. She determined that ‘there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed on the territory of the Philippines between July 2016 and March 2019 in the context of the government’s ‘War on Drugs’ campaign.’ Emphasizing that the available information from investigations have confirmed the Philippine National Police’s involvement in these extra-judicial killings, she intends to resolve all cases placed under preliminary investigation under her term.

On 15th June 2021, the ICC called for an investigation into the extrajudicial killings orchestrated by the Duterte government. Despite, Duterte formally withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC in 2019, this investigation is being pursued to hold the government account for the crimes committed between 2016 and 2019 while the Philippines was still a member of the organisation. The ICC has begun to receive submissions from victims to ascertain the full scope of the crimes committed and peoples affected. This move by the ICC has been supported by civil society groups in the Philippines and other international NGOs.

On 6th July 2021, InvestigatePH, an independent and international civil society group, released a 62-page report that outlines a variety of human rights violations carried out by the Duterte government as part of the War on Drugs, its suppression of the Moros (a Muslim minority group), and broad crackdown on dissent in society at large. The Report’s section on the Drug War features several firsthand testimonies, highlights how civil society organisations were unable to seek justice from relevant bureaucratic entities, and describes how the pretext of a war on drugs was used to harass and isolate impoverished communities. The Report details how the police provided incomplete autopsies to obscure the violence they committed, buried victims in mass graves to prevent identification, and intimidated citizens into not filing complaints. The Report makes several relevant recommendations to end this violence. Foremost among them is asking the UN Human Rights Council to become more involved in the Philippines and to protect the publishers of the report and it calls on other countries to suspend police and military training agreements with the Philippines.

On 7th of July 2021, President Duterte announced that he was “seriously thinking” about running for Vice President in the upcoming 2022 election. In the Philippine political system, the Vice President is elected separately from the President. If Duterte were to run for Vice President and win, this would circumvent the presidential term limit. Thus, allowing him to continue pursuing his drug war and extending his political and legal immunities which protect him from consequences of this policy.

On 23rd July 2021, the Philippines signed onto a capacity building program with the United Nations to improve the abilities of the state to promote and protect the human rights within the Philippines. This is a three-year scheme designed to address six areas of engagement revolving around developing better mechanisms of accountability from within state and from civil society and refocusing approaches to terrorism and drug-control with that preserves human rights.

On 13th August 2021, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) issued a statement encouraging the ICC to pursue its investigation into the human rights violations that have occurred during Duterte’s drug war. They claim that it will be the golden opportunity to uncover the true extent of the damage done by this policy. This support is particularly important as President Duterte nears the end of his presidential term limit.

On 25th August 2021, Rodrigo Duterte announced his plans to run as vice president as his current presidential term is planned to end in 2022. As part of his vice-presidential campaign Duterte is aiming to continue his drug war commenced during his presidential tenure and extend the political protections afforded to him by his position.

On 27th August 2021, the ICC Registry released a report pertaining to the findings from victim submissions gathered in prior months. From the 204 qualified forms collected, 192 indicated that they wanted an investigation to go ahead. The full report can be accessed here.

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