Since assuming office in June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has caused plenty of controversy. Beyond undiplomatic comments and a growing relationship with China, it is Duterte’s approach to the Philippines drug war that is garnering the most attention. And it is this war on drugs that brings into question what the future will hold for the country once the violence that is now part of daily life finally ends.
Like any country, the Philippines has its share of drug dealers and drug addicts. In particular, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimated in 2012 that methamphetamine use is higher in the Philippines than any other country in East Asia. It is believed that Chinese drug syndicates are behind most of the drug supply in the country, although meth sourced from Africa is also a growing concern. In both cases, the Philippines serves as an ideal jumping off spot for the drug trade throughout the rest of the Southeast Asia region.
Thus it is understandable that policymakers would want to clamp down on drug use within the country. But after campaigning for tough reforms, the approach that Duterte and his government is taking has shocked people both inside and outside the country.
According to the Philippine news website Rappler, since the government launched its “Oplan Double Barrel” plan in July there have been more than 33,000 police operations with more than 2.7 million houses visited by police in search of drug dealers or user. In addition, more than 32,000 people have been arrested in relation to the drug trade while over 750,000 people – mostly drug users – have turned themselves into the police for fears that they would be killed if they didn’t.
These are shocking statistics for such a short timeframe, and the high number of arrests have led to gross overcrowding in prisons and questions about the ability of the court system to grant due process for those caught up in the sweeps. But it is the other side of this drug war, where vigilante justice is encouraged, that is most concerning.
According to official figures, almost 2,300 people have been killed since the start of Oplan Double Barrel although many activists put the number at over 4,000. Of those killed, 1,600 were killed by police while hundreds of others have been killed unknown assailants, apparently doing their part to rid the country of its drug culture. Despite promises of investigations into the slayings, little has been done to capture those who are responsible.
The descent into vigilante justice and lack of concern by the government for the killings is a troubling development. Even though Duterte campaigned on being tough on crime, his election and drug wars seems to have only increased it. As J. Weston Phippen pointed out in August, prior to his election shooting deaths in the Philippines average two per week; less than a month into his term, that number increased to an average of ten per day. By August, it was up to 13 killings a day related to the drug war.
As the violence becomes a part of daily life in the Philippines, many are questioning what it could mean for the country and for Duterte’s government in particular. Already the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, has expressed concern over the violence and warned that as a state party the Philippines could be opening themselves up for prosecution for crimes against humanity at the court. Numerous human rights groups have echoed this sentiment as the EU and US continue to express alarm over the extrajudicial killings.
For his part, Duterte doesn’t seem to care. As mayor of the city of Davao where his nickname was “the Punisher,” Duterte faced numerous allegations of extrajudicial killings and criminal activity but nothing ever came of the rumors. In a speech after Bensouda’s written statement, Duterte brushed off any attempts to hold him criminally liable for the events that have gripped the country since he came to office. And in a later interview with Al Jazeera, he appeared to see nothing wrong with his campaign against drugs or the methods being used. Instead, he likened innocents who were caught up in the campaign as acceptable collateral damage, similar to any other type of war.
However it is clear that what is happening in the Philippines is far from normal. Duterte is only four months into his elected six year term, and already his rule is threatening to put the Philippines into chaos. Whether he is ultimately able to reign in the violence may be beside the point as the country will have a lot to answer to in how it let things get this far to begin with.
Originally appeared at UN Dispatch