Wars are deadly events that lead to the deaths of thousands of people, usually including civilians. Despite this, war is often advocated as an ‘easy’ fix to solve complex problems, to the extent that it is often justified if it adheres to the theory of Just War. Within this theory, war is morally permissible if certain requirements are met. Namely, the war must: be proportional, be a last resort, and have a high probability of success.
Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, recently tested these moral requirements of war on a different level; a metaphorical war. Upon visiting the Philippines, Sirisena declared his full support for the ongoing ‘war on drugs’ in the country, an initiative that displays Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutality. Or does it? It has been widely reported that many Filipinos support Duterte’s metaphorical war on drugs. This support could explain why Duterte remains so popular in the country, despite his vulgar comments and discriminatory actions. Seemingly, it has had the same impact on the Sri Lankan president, who stated, “the war against crime and drugs carried out by [Rodrigo Duterte] is an example to the whole world, and personally to me.” In fact, Sirisena admired Duterte’s efforts so much he declared that Sri Lanka would implement the death penalty in the hopes of “destroying drug dealers.”
The illegal drug trade has always been an issue in Sri Lanka. One only has to visit the country to see an abundance of anti-drug signs placed around the cities. Moreover, the usage of drugs has largely been associated with various separatist groups in the country, which have appropriated the trafficking of drugs as income for their armed activities. In this context, many would theoretically support the war on drugs and want to replicate the ‘success’ it has in the Philippines. Who would be opposed to a country-wide ‘legitimate’ war to eliminate the negative effects of illegal drugs and terrorism?
On paper, if this campaign adhered to the principles of a just war, it seems ideal. However, Sirisena’s aggressive stance towards the drug problem, and his promotion of the death penalty for drug offenders, violate many of the ethics of a morally permissible war. Many could argue that Sirisena’s use of the death penalty for drug offenders does not meet the levels of proportionality needed to make the war justifiable. That the war on drugs is enacted as a last resort is also questionable, as one could argue that the use of the death penalty is not a sustainable solution to prevent the historic causes behind the drug epidemic in the country. Lastly, Sirisena’s decision to embrace the war on drugs was largely due to the ‘success’ of the metaphorical war in the Philippines. However, with over 12,000 Filipinos reportedly killed by “death squads,” many of whom are innocent, and with the indefinite war on drugs still ongoing, ‘success’ seems a subjectively ill-equipped term.
Despite the war on drugs not abiding by the principles of a ‘just war,’ why is the metaphorical war a popular policy in countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka? Even more curious, why is the policy supported by the civilian population in the Philippines? A useful reference to explain this would be the popular ‘war on terror,’ a metaphor used widely around the world. By using this metaphor, various complex conflicts around the world are oversimplified as merely a matter of terrorism; a war against the ‘other.’ As Lori Hartmann-Mahmud explains in her article War as Metaphor, declaring a war against an idea or phenomenon such as terror, drugs, or poverty “allows for a simplified policy agenda… a curbing of critical discourse on the issues, because to be anti-war is perceived to be unpatriotic, even treasonous.”
Unwilling to risk being perceived as unpatriotic, defending terrorists, or sustaining poverty, many will adhere to disproportionate and uncritical governmental responses to such threats. Meanwhile, this oversimplification of a war against illegal drugs, like the war on terror, can largely explain its failure. The war on terror fails to address the deep-rooted, and often non-terrorist history of the groups it targets, and likewise, the war on drugs fails to understand the socioeconomic implications of drugs. In response to this, a report by the United Nations has claimed that a ‘war on drugs’ approach to disrupting the illegal drug market, in addition to being unsuccessful, has led to a 145% increase in reported deaths. The report also illustrates that the re-installation of the death penalty in various countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, along with methods such as ‘shoot to kill,’ despite being in violation of numerous drug conventions, are signs that more countries are engaging in the war on drugs.
Labelling Duterte’s brutal war on drugs as an “example to the world,” Maithripala Sirisena’s remarks indicate that a drastic, critical shift is needed to reverse the mainstream rhetoric surrounding metaphorical wars. Many experts specify how to ‘win’ the war on drugs, either by advocating the legalization of certain drugs or by increasing police powers. The issue with the metaphorical war on drugs, however, is in its distinction from wars between countries or groups. Unlike other wars, metaphorical wars on poverty, terror, and drugs do not involve an enemy country, actor, or group. Instead, the war is fought against an idea that can be manipulated: in this case, drugs. Consequently, the end of a war on drugs, terror, or poverty is difficult to measure; drugs cannot physically submit to defeat. It is predominantly for this reason that, in Sri Lanka, to create a long-term solution to the problem of drugs, the ‘war on drugs’ should not be used as a term to measure the success or failure of a drug policy. It is also important to contest this ‘war’ metaphor for its tendency to invoke a militaristic view of a socioeconomic issue, therefore negating a peaceful response to the issue of drugs. Sirisena’s speeches thus far have already illustrated his high level of aspired militarism, as he targeted the country’s drug problem by comparing the utility of the death penalty to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka’s own ‘war on terror.’
Another problem inherent in the ‘war on drugs’ is the increasingly deceptive perception of the ‘other.’ The clearest example of this can be seen in the ‘war on terror,’ where the enemy ‘other’ is a ‘terrorist.’ In such cases, harsh actions against suspected terrorists are justified, as they constitute the ‘other.’ Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has been used to fuel this vision of the ‘other’ by specifically targeting certain communities for persecution, as reported by Amnesty International. Similarly, activists worry that Sirisena’s admiration for Duterte’s war on drugs – which, Human Rights Watch claims, unfairly targets the urban poor – will foreshadow the same discrimination in Sri Lanka. Thus, a war on drugs directly translates to a war on the most vulnerable. This is because the drugs market, for many, forms an imperative form of income, especially in the poorer parts of countries. Targeting and hunting down these individuals, classified as ‘enemies,’ and sentencing them to death sentences without societal reform largely escalates the drug problem and creates a violent black market, as reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Moreover, a 2008 report by the UNODC indicates that, as a result of the focus on the war on drugs, less focus is given to other sectors in the country, such as the health sector. In order to reverse this impact, drug dealers and offenders should not be labelled as the ‘enemy.’ Instead of hunting down individuals involved in the drugs market and sentencing them to death, those individuals should be targeted and given sustainable economic support and assistance. As such, assisting the poor and targeting those involved in the drugs trade must be synonymous, in order to establish economic stability. By offering this coordinated approach, one could understand the deep-rooted reasons for involvement in the illegal drug trade and ensure a long-term economic recovery and reintegration into society. This peaceful solution to a potential conflict is vital to avoid a division in society and indefinite military intervention due to an imaginary war. By critically analyzing the political labelling behind such metaphorical wars, we are able to continually strive for peaceful, non-violent solutions to complex conflicts. Complexity is not the ‘enemy,’ but rather a motivating factor in establishing peace for everyone.
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