The Philippines is experiencing a wave of extrajudicial executions of small drug dealers since the new president of the republic, Rodrigo Duterte, was inaugurated on June 30.
Since then, 2,000 drug dealers have died, 900 of them in clashes with the police, and 1,100 at the hands of vigilantes. Duterte, who was the mayor of Davao City in the south of the country for seven terms and has earned the nickname of “The Punisher,” has the reputation of being tough on criminals. In Davao he cleared the city of drugs and crime, using police and death squads. Even karaoke bars in the city have to close at 10 p.m. so as not to disturb neighbors with too much noise. He was elected in May of this year with 40 percent of the vote, and his approval rating was 90 percent in July.
In early August, Duterte released a list with 150 names, including generals, judges, police, mayors and several politicians, whom he claimed were involved in drug trafficking in the country. He said that all named policemen would be relieved of their duties and gave 24 hours for each person on the list to turn themselves in to the Philippine National Police to be investigated. The president said that 600,000 people in the country are involved in drugs —users and dealers. In August an estimated 565,805 drug users surrendered to the authorities.
“A lot of people with soft hearts, including senators of the republic are complaining about the mortality rate in the fight against drugs,” he said in a speech on Aug. 17. “If the resistance is so violent that it is putting your life in danger, shoot and shoot to kill. Can I be clearer than that?”
Several political and human rights groups have strongly criticized the killing of drug traffickers, pointing out that the rule of law in a democracy like the Philippines has to be respected and that if the violence continues, innocents would be affected. The UN special rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, called on Philippine authorities to adopt measures with immediate effect to protect all people from targeted assassinations and extrajudicial executions. She accused Duterte of having effectively given a license to kill to police and others. This led Duterte to threaten that the Philippines would leave the United Nations. The next day the secretary of foreign affairs tried to calm things down, saying that the Philippines would not leave the UN and that the president was only expressing his frustration with the body.
The drug that took over the country since the 1990s is methamphetamine manufactured in clandestine laboratories, and is cheap and highly addictive. The trafficking of this drug in the Philippines is controlled by criminal networks, many of them Chinese. This has given nationalist overtones to the campaign against “shabu,” as the drug is popularly called in the Philippines.
Manuel L. Quezon III, undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, thinks politicians, journalists and judges have tempered their criticisms of the war against “shabu” out of fear.
For Richard Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, if President Duterte does not moderate his anti-drug campaign, the country may be called to account by the International Criminal Court.
“Duterte’s message that this is a national security issue of utmost urgency has struck a chord with the majority of Filipinos, who lament the rigmarole of the Philippine judiciary, paralysis in governance in recent decades, and overall low levels of law and order. External pressure, however, is building up. And there is a possibility that the ICC or some international criminal court will step in at some point if Duterte doesn’t scale back. It is possible that, with more than 500,000 suspected drug-dealers/consumers surrendering to the government, Duterte will move to the rehabilitation phase, or shift his war on crime to corruption and other bureaucratic malice. So far, it seems domestic opposition has yet to reach a critical threshold. And the opposition in general has not yet crystallized,” Heydarian said in an interview.
It is clear that the Duterte’s war against drug traffickers has broad public support. The problem is that many innocent people are going to be killed by mistake. A five-year-old girl already died when vigilantes fired her grandfather, an alleged drug dealer, and hit her instead. There are ways within the law to do this without resorting to vigilantism.
The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.