The Philippines’ Deadly War On Drugs


“My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.”

These are the words of the current President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. He is the man at the forefront of the ongoing “war on drugs” in the island nation. Duterte’s controversial approach to ending illegal drug activity in the Philippines has claimed the lives of thousands and has also caught the attention of many human rights organizations. Most recently, the highest ranking church official in the Philippines, Cardinal Luis Tagle, condemned Duterte’s aggressive tactics, stating, “We knock on the consciences of those who kill even the helpless, especially those who cover their faces with bonnets, to stop wasting human lives.” Despite the backlash, Duterte has remained firm on his methodology to try to eradicate illegal drug use. He believes that people involved in the illegal drug market do not deserve to have human rights because they are criminals, and he also further defends his policy by saying that the lives lost in his war on drugs are justified because it is for the greater good of society.

Last Wednesday, August 16th, marked the deadliest day yet under Duterte’s administration where multiple police operations claimed the lives of 32 alleged criminals. The very next day, 25 people were killed overnight during police operations; in total, over a three day period, more than 60 people have been killed from anti-drug police operations. According to an article from Reuters, more than 12,500 people have been killed from Duterte’s anti-drug policies since he became president in June of last year. However, despite being responsible for such a large number of deaths, Duterte remains a widely popular political figure within the Philippines, with surveys estimating that about 80% of the population have trust in their president. While this number may surprise many who live outside the country, it is worth noting that many more Filipino residents now feel safer under Duterte’s control. Since taking office, Duterte’s strong stance on crime has seen a sharp decrease in crime rates within the country. But unsurprisingly, due to the government’s aggressive tactics in cracking down on the illegal drug market, the murder rate has gone up.

Despite the recent spike in killings in the hands of policemen, Duterte’s popularity will most likely remain steady. With that said, more are asking: when will the killings stop? During his campaign, Duterte stated that he will commit the first six months of his presidency to eradicating illegal drug activity. However, once actually in office, he admitted that the problem was much worse than he first thought and has now come out and said that he is now dedicating all six years of his presidential term towards fulfilling his promise. While many Filipinos support Duterte’s anti-drug ideology, the majority believe that the alleged criminals should not be killed. Many human rights organizations have added that Duterte should aim to “kill drugs, not people.” In spite of the outcries from human rights activists, Duterte remains fully committed to his approach, even once stating, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have (me).” While his words are harsh, his support remains strong, which causes many outside of the Philippines to scratch their heads and ask: why is he so popular?

Duterte is drastically different from the previous Philippine presidents in recent times. Under former president, Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines had sustained economic growth and became one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, but in a country with a 26% poverty rate, many felt left out of the equation. Despite the country’s economic growth, many were concerned about rising crime rates, aging infrastructure, and rampant drug use and abuse. Duterte was able to win the presidential election by a landslide by promising to address these concerns with an any-means-necessary approach. Considered to be radical and an outsider, Duterte represents the change the people of the Philippines want to see. He is viewed as a man of the people, due to his candid style, as he often curses during his speeches — thus allowing his people to perceive him as more relatable. Owing to his vast popularity, his war on drugs is met with relatively little opposition. However, in a country with free press and more and more people questioning the morality of his tactics, it remains to be seen if his popularity will be sustained. Being in office for a little over a year now, it is still very early in his presidency, but it seems that the people of the Philippines are presently willing to tolerate the actions of their president as long as he fulfils the promises he made during the election.

While it is still too early to say whether or not Duterte is living up to his promises economically, the fall in crime rates does show that his militant approach has been effective. However, there is no question that his anti-drug policies are unjust and a human rights violation. His tactics may be effective in the short run by instilling fear into would-be criminals, but a different approach must be used in order to ensure long-term reduction of drug abuse and crime rates. While the majority of the population support his war on drugs, many remain improperly informed about the civil rights violations committed by the government. The police currently justify killing accused criminals as self-defence. However, according to several eyewitness accounts, the police have been found to murder accused criminals in cold blood, even planting fake evidence next to the dead bodies. The war on drugs has also disproportionately affected the poor. Many of those who are homeless end up dead in the streets the next morning. Even small-time drug users are at risk of being unlawfully murdered by police. In one of the most notorious cases, an anti-drug operation claimed the life of a 12-year-old girl — though Duterte believes that children killed in the drug war are “collateral damage.”

Accused drug users and any other criminals will often not have the right to a trial, as they are too often killed right at the scene or during police custody. Budit Carlos, a spokesperson for the Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, states, “Our justice system is riddled by corruption, and justice has become an illusion for Filipinos.” Duterte is creating a dangerous culture that leaves police officers unaccountable, even when killing innocent civilians. A recent report conducted by Social Weather Stations, a nonprofit research group in the Philippines, found that eight out of ten civilians were worried about losing a family member by anti-drug operations. Duterte’s efforts to “socially cleanse” the Philippines by mass killings and incarcerations are not a proper solution to the problem. One can look at the United States, a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, as an example. Drug abuse in the U.S. is still a very concerning issue, with the growing opioid epidemic taking national headlines most recently. Even though the incarceration rate skyrocketed in America during the 80s and 90s, there was very little change in actual illegal drug use in the country. Yet still today, accusations of human rights violations committed by police officers in poor communities, especially those of which are majority African-American, have caused great controversy and divide.

With that being said, Duterte’s plan to put every criminal in “jail or hell” is not one that is sustainable. In any society, people will continue to commit crimes and use drugs. Instead of aspiring to end all crime, a politician must try to reduce criminality. The countries with the lowest crime rates – such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – all have low wealth inequality and low incarceration rates. Duterte has already extended his war on drugs from six months to six years; his anti-drug policies will simply lead to years of continuous bloodshed and will create a culture of severe police brutality. The Human Rights Watch Organization also points out that Duterte’s tactics are a concern to public health. Out of fear of being caught, drug users and abusers will stray away from hospitals and professional care, instead of looking towards the underground black market for their health concerns. If history has taught us anything, it is this: rehabilitation, not criminalization, is the key to helping those in society who are most vulnerable to crime and drug abuse. The solution to ending drug abuse comes through economic opportunity, low-income inequality, and rehabilitation of criminals and drug abusers. Continuing to use America as an example, increasing the criminalization of drug use will create more underground drug markets, which will lead to the creation of more dangerous and potent drugs. To put simply, in order to fix the drug problem in the Philippines, President Duterte should strive for economic prosperity and not unlawful police brutality. Eventually, something has to give: either Duterte softens his approach and focuses his energy to grow the Filipino economy, or he will need to take accountability for the crimes against humanity his government has committed. President Duterte’s war on drugs is not only unlawful, but also not the right solution. Hopefully, the people of the Philippines will recognize that soon.

EJ Patterson