The cornerstone of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s political career is his war against drugs and crime. That battle has been waged without limit; not only has he mobilized all elements of the state to fight the scourge but he has encouraged extrajudicial action as well — the killing of suspected drug dealers and users — resulting in the loss of thousands of lives.
Whenever this program comes under scrutiny, Duterte is defiant. In the most recent case, he ordered Philippine government agencies and state owned companies to suspend loan and grant agreements with countries that voted to investigate the crackdown on drugs. This decision is foolish and dangerous. It erodes the government’s authority and contributes to a pervasive sense of lawlessness that will fuel and sustain the culture that perpetuates the drug trade.
During his 22 years as mayor of Davao City, Duterte waged a war against drugs. On the final days of his 2016 campaign to become president of his country, he promised to take that fight to the national level, warning that “If I make it to the presidential palace I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”
He has kept his word. The Manila government has reported that more than 5,500 “drug personalities” have died in drug-related violence; human rights groups reckon the number is five times higher, with the death toll estimated to reach 27,000 people. Most of the victims are poor, and deaths are invariably the result of shootouts with the police. Human rights groups and experts accuse the government of indiscriminate killings and a systemic attempt to cover up the truth.
The indiscriminate killings prompted the United Nations Human Rights Council in July to back a probe into the campaign. The resolution was put forward by Iceland and supported by 18 countries. Fourteen countries voted against the investigation, and 15 abstained — Japan among them. The Philippine government condemned the vote, calling it hypocritical, one-sided and a “travesty.” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. noted that it was not legitimate since more countries either voted against the resolution or abstained than voted on its behalf. Locsin also said the government would deny entry to U.N. investigators, calling them “bastards” who had already made up their minds.
Last week, it was reported that Duterte had ordered government agencies and state-owned companies to suspend talks on loan and grant agreements with countries that backed the U.N. investigation. While the president’s legal counsel denied he issued any such order, Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia clarified that the dictat would not affect infrastructure projects, but rather “only some ODA grants.”
Duterte’s pique is not without precedent. In 2017, he threatened to pull his country out of the U.N. over criticism of the drug campaign and rejected €260 million of European Union development projects after critical remarks by European parliamentarians. Ultimately, the projects were not stopped. A year later, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the International Criminal Court after the court announced that it would conduct a preliminary examination into alleged crimes against humanity. He followed through on that pledge, leaving the tribunal in March.
Duterte and his supporters claim that the scourge of drugs mandates such harsh measures. They also note that the Philippine public backs the program. A poll released two days after the memo was divulged showed that Filipinos overwhelmingly support the antidrugs campaign, with 82 percent declaring themselves satisfied because it had resulted in less drugs and crime. Just 12 percent was dissatisfied, because either the drug trade continued or they were alarmed by the killings and police abuses.
The morality of the mob is no justification for lawlessness; indeed, the morality of the mob is often lawlessness. If the Duterte government has nothing to fear and seeks to ensure that its efforts are consistent with the rule of law, it would welcome an objective, international investigation to ascertain the facts. Its efforts to avoid scrutiny and tar its critics imply a recognition of the gap between the reality of its antidrug campaign and its preferred image.
Japan’s decision to abstain on the U.N. vote is inexplicable. It is impossible to reconcile that stance while simultaneously arguing for a foreign policy that rests on respect for the rule of law, human rights and other liberal values, and which touts them as integral parts of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Geostrategic considerations may have influenced Japan’s vote, but if so the calculations were flawed. Japan has done great damage to its credibility when it steps away from this issue.