Since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines two months ago, the country has waged a vicious war against the drug trade. The number of victims will soon reach 2,000, a horrific number. The mounting death toll should come as no surprise. Duterte campaigned on a law and order platform, his reputation was built on this image and there was no reason to think that he would moderate his behavior if he moved to Malacanang Palace. The drug problem may well constitute a national crisis, but that cannot excuse the shredding of the rule of law and extrajudicial killings. Human rights extend to the guilty and the innocent alike.
Duterte made his reputation as mayor of Davao City as a man of action. He waged a war on criminals on all fronts: Police and vigilantes — sometimes called death squads — were encouraged to take the law into their own hands. Extrajudicial killings were widespread, but crime rates in Davao City plummeted during his tenure, which lasted seven terms from 1988 to June this year.
The key pledge of Duterte’s presidential campaign was to replicate this success on the national scale. He sought the return of capital punishment (abolished in 2006) for “heinous” crimes, such as the drug trade. He warned that this strategy to deal with drugs and corruption would be simple: “kill them all,” promising that the fish of Manila Bay would grow fat feasting on the bodies of drug dealers. After he was elected, he warned all police and related personnel to leave the drug trade or quit their jobs; he has also publicly named mayors, government and police officials he alleged were involved in drug trafficking.
During the first two weeks of the Duterte presidency, more than 100 suspected drug dealers were killed, 1,844 arrested and 660,000 users and dealers surrendered. By mid-August, the numbers had risen to 1,800 killed, 5,400 arrested and 565,805 surrendered. According to the director general of the Philippine National Police, crime rates have fallen 49 percent.
Criticism has been quick to follow. While acknowledging that the drug trade is a serious problem, many Philippine politicians, journalists and commentators rightly demand adherence to the rule of law and the protections embodied in the country’s constitution. Other governments have expressed concern about extrajudicial killings and urged the Manila government to respect the human rights outlined in the national charter and international law. Over 300 international nongovernment organizations have signed a letter that denounces Duterte’s policies and demands that international drug control agencies state unequivocally that such killings “do not constitute acceptable drug control measures.”
Among the critics is Agnes Callamard, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions. In a statement she called on “the Philippines authorities to adopt with immediate effect the necessary measures to protect all persons from targeted killings and extrajudicial executions.” The statement noted that “claims to fight illicit drug trade do not absolve the government from its international legal obligations and do not shield state actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings.”
Duterte responded with anger, threatening to leave the United Nations and to join with other like-minded nations to form a new global organization to tackle these issues. Those comments were rolled back by his foreign minister the next day, who explained that the president was speaking out of “profound disappointment and frustration,” adding that the Philippines remains “committed to the U.N.”
Frustration is understandable. According to the U.N., the Philippines in 2012 had the highest rate of methamphetamine use in East Asia. The Philippine police chief estimates that there are 3.7 million drug users in his country. The drug trade in 2013 was reckoned to be worth $8.4 billion. Between 2010 and 2015, 623 government officials and employees were arrested for drug-related offenses, or about one person every two days. More than 6,000 anti-drug operations have been conducted nationwide.
But while the image of Duterte as “the enforcer” is popular — he still enjoys stratospheric support ratings — and gratifying, those policies are not effective. The “take no prisoners” policy was tried in Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed and the program made no dent in the amount of drug trafficking or use.
The loss of innocent lives or the settling of scores under the guise of cleaning up the drug trade is one problem. Even more worrying over the long run is the erosion of the rule of law in a country with a long history of abuse of power. Filipinos have struggled to reclaim their democracy and it has been a long and frustrating process. Duterte is only the most recent in a long line of autocrats who have been irritated by the inefficiencies of a democratically elected government. Corruption has been and continues to be a real problem in the Philippines. But the solution to that problem is rigid and neutral application of the law — not its disregard.