Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte announced last week that he has suspended the anti-drug operations of the Philippine National Police. All operations will now be transferred to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), which will entail a refocusing on larger drug syndicates as opposed to low-level street dealers and users. Since coming to power in July 2016, Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has resulted in thousands killed by police operations, as well as extrajudicial killings undertaken by police and vigilantes with seeming impunity. Although it is rather unclear as to what exactly prompted this recent scaling back of police anti-drug operations, perhaps it is a result of both intensifying domestic and international condemnation of the President’s approach to the war on drugs in recent months. As Duterte faces these escalating challenges on several fronts, his approval ratings have consequently suffered.
In an indication that persistent campaigning against the war on drugs by human rights groups has made at least some impact, Duterte reportedly stated that the new order should satisfy the “bleeding hearts and the media”, and that operations would now target “big fish”, or high-scale drug organizations. However, James Gomez from Amnesty International warned that the decision was potentially “nothing but a short-term PR move in response to growing public outrage about the drug war’s many victims, which are overwhelmingly poor, and include children.” It is noteworthy that police anti-drug operations were also temporarily suspended in January of this year, following the murder of a South Korean businessman by Filipino policemen, only to be reinstated just over a month later.
The latest decision to suspend anti-drug operations by the Philippines National Police force is an encouraging, albeit tentative move in the right direction. Duterte’s war on drugs has killed thousands and imprisoned tens of thousands more, resulting in increased pressure on an already overloaded judicial and prison system. For instance, some prisons near Manila, although only designed to hold several hundred inmates, instead house several thousand. The majority of prisoners have been locked up for alleged drug-related offences, and the overwhelming majority of these are yet to have been granted a single court appearance. As a result of this severely backlogged judicial process and prison system, those accused of even the seemingly most minor drug-related offences face a several-year wait to have their cases heard.
It is yet to be seen whether transitioning jurisdiction from the Philippine National Police to the PDEA will lessen police and vigilante extrajudicial killings- a significant component of the war on drugs. Duterte has consistently defended the actions of police, often publicly encouraging them to kill drug users and promising officers immunity from any claims of criminality in such circumstances. By allowing police officers and vigilantes to murder with impunity, the Duterte administration has normalised a culture of excessive violence and police opaqueness which puts at risk not only the poor and vulnerable, but also innocent civilians- many of whom are already reported to have been killed in supposed anti-drug operations. The normalisation of such extreme violence against an easily vilified segment of the population presents an obvious obstacle to long-lasting peace in the country, and it is unlikely that the decision to shift responsibility for anti-drug operations will dramatically alter this culture of impunity from violence.
Human rights groups and the international community must maintain pressure on the government of the Philippines to end its war on drugs—a campaign which is causing lasting social damage and violence to the populations it targets. An evidence-based public health approach to reducing drug use by focusing on harm prevention, as opposed to unrestrained police violence and killing, is what is needed for the Philippines. The suspension in police operations, while an encouraging sign of progress, will likely not achieve this.