Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ Brings Dictatorship Methods Back to the Philippines


In less than two months since the inauguration of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines some 1,900 people have been killed at the hands of the police and death squads for suspected drug dealing or drug addiction. These unlawful murders, which have been dressed up in the trappings of a “war on drugs,” bear all the hallmarks of official lawlessness and possible crimes against humanity, which have been sanctioned by the highest office holders in the government.

This is not the first time that the Philippines has seen widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings. Over 3,000 such killings were documented during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The pattern of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings that the country suffered under Marcos seems to be repeating itself.

With statements like “Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal” and “If they are there in your neighborhood, feel free to call us, the police or do it yourself if you have the gun,” Duterte has explicitly and publicly encouraged these killings. He has also promised to grant pardons or propose an amnesty for policemen who may be charged for these killings while declaring immunity for himself as president.

Whatever Duterte’s presidential powers may be they do not extend to amnestying international crimes, such as crimes against humanity defined in the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and Indonesia, which have also seen leaders wage drug wars involving numerous extrajudicial and judicial killings, the Philippines ratified the Rome Statute in 2011 under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

The Philippines is bound by the human rights treaties it has signed to respect the right to life and uphold due process. This was recently reiterated by the new UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard: “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.”

Recent photographs from Manila show another disturbing aspect of Duterte’s drug war: it disproportionately targets the poor. In the widely circulated photo of a widow cradling her dead husband, we see both the drug war’s human toll and from their story we learn the crushing poverty of the majority of its victims. The couple lived on a shanty on top of a garbage-filled canal in Manila. In other photographs, a prominent businessman and a mayor both suspected of drug dealing safely and publicly have audiences with the president.

Nonetheless, a sizable portion of the Philippine population voted for Duterte. And many elected politicians and local officials have shifted their loyalty to him, due to an entrenched system of patronage in the country. This has emboldened Duterte, police officials, and some of his supporters to question not only human rights advocates but even the existence of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a constitutional body set up after the Marcos dictatorship to curb abuses. Duterte warned human rights advocates “not to pick a fight with me or you will lose.” Duterte’s Justice Secretary has also dismissed warnings from human rights lawyers and legislators that these killings may be crimes against humanity, claiming that “criminals are not humanity.”

During the Arroyo administration, Philip Alston, then UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, found that extrajudicial killings of leftwing activists and suspected drug dealers and users had escalated markedly in the five years since Arroyo had taken office. In a 2009 report, Alston specifically named Duterte, then Mayor of Davao City, as someone who “has done nothing to prevent these killings, and his public comments suggest that he is, in fact, supportive.”

That these crimes would not only recur but be carried out and encouraged at the national level was made all the more likely by the impunity afforded to the individuals and groups who carried out, supported, and encouraged those killings. Today, we are seeing the legacy of that impunity play out in a policy of systematic campaign of violence that may amount to crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, there are many examples, across virtually every continent, where tolerance for extrajudicial killings and a culture of impunity not only erode respect for life and law, but recur in other forms of violations, including torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances.

Still, the Philippines was and is seen as a country that, despite the challenges, could live up to its human rights obligations. Its peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was a positive step in this direction, and the government’s adoption of a law to provide reparations to and memorialize victims of the Marcos dictatorship remains a milestone of acknowledgement of human rights abuses and a measure of redress for the victims in Southeast Asia.

It is now time for the Philippine government to live up to the human rights obligations that it has obliged itself to follow and to respect those rights not only when it is convenient to do so but also and especially when, as its political leaders claim, it is fighting a ‘war’ against those who don’t see themselves bound by law or any commitment to respect life.

As the Philippine government conducts this campaign ostensibly against drug lords, it should bear in mind that as a state party to the Rome Statute, it is obligated to investigate widespread, systematic extrajudicial killings targeting civilians that may constitute crimes against humanity. Although the ICC Prosecutor has so far only investigated situations in which alleged crimes against humanity involved in political or identity-based violence and killings, nonetheless the ICC also has jurisdiction over — and in my view, in some cases an imperative to investigate and prosecute — crimes against humanity that victimize those who are killed and forgotten in unbridled wars against crime.

This article was originally published in The South China Morning Post

PHOTO: Relatives of a suspected drug pusher weep after he was shot dead following a police operation in Manila, Philippines, August 3, 2016. (Zeke Jacobs/Sipa via AP Images)