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BLOG: Duterte's War on Drugs

last modified Aug 23, 2017 12:43 PM
Sharmila Parmanand, a PhD candidate in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, gave an arresting introduction to the current human rights abuses in the Philippines as a result of President Duterte’s war on drugs.

This war, according to the government, has included over 57,500 anti-drug operations since July 2016, resulting in the deaths of 2,949 alleged sellers or users of drugs. Over 3,5000 additional deaths have been brought about by ‘vigilante killings’, which may well have involved the police. In fact, Parmanand suspected the abuse of police power was rife within this drug war. From falsely planting evidence on victims, and claiming those victims fought back (when the direction of bullet wounds proves otherwise), to arbitrarily creating lists of drug sellers and users who are forced to ‘surrender’ or risk death (1.27 million have so far surrendered, though it is unclear how many of these are actually guilty). In fact, there is evidence that the police are actively encouraged to take the lives of those suspected of involvement with drugs, as there are allegations that they are given quotas and bonuses to do so. Indeed, Duterte has threatened lawyers who defend those accused of drug crimes and has publicly supported police actions-stating, for instance, that officers are allowed to rape up to three women without repercussions. Even more astounding, Duterte has claimed to have killed over 700 armed criminals (later changing the claim to 1,700) himself during his tenure as mayor of Davao City. 

It is clear that violence is pursued for its own sake as, Parmanand explained, the rehabilitation centres in the Philippines are overcrowded, understaffed, and Duterte has been vocal about his unwillingness to fund these facilities. Since drug users are pathologised as inherently violent and unredeemable, he has claimed that rehabilitation centres are a waste of money, and that drug addicts who do not recover quickly should be encouraged to commit suicide. This is symptomatic, Parmanand pointed out, of Duterte’s coarse ‘gutter’ language and the penal populism which partly accounts for his mass support. The language of toughness, control and immediacy, Parmanand argued, appears more appealing than a long-term strategy of building an effective justice system. The latter is widely seen as corrupt and serving only the rich by many of those whom constituted Duterte’s electoral base.

Both Duterte’s disdain for institutions and coarse rhetoric are reminiscent of the politics of other populist leaders who have risen to notoriety over recent years. Resembling leaders like President Trump, for instance, Duterte has actively sought to discredit human rights organisations, international leaders who are critical of his war on drugs, the traditional media and the Catholic Church. His stance as anti-establishment outlier accounted for his popularity among various disaffected groups who, Parmanand explained, not only turned out to vote but financially supported his campaign despite their poverty. Like several CGHR events this academic year, Parmanand's talk revealed how human rights discourse is being openly disregarded by politicians- visible both in the U.S and the U.K where human rights legislation is publicly treated as a threat to national security. But in the Philippines, the threat to society is perceived as internal, as the Philippines’ drug problem is framed as a “crisis” connected to all manner of other crimes, including religiously-based rebellions in the south of the country.

What was perhaps most surprising, and disconcerting, about Parmanand's talk was the fact that Duterte remains highly popular, with an approval rating higher than 80%. Without an organised grassroots opposition to rival Duterte’s supermajority in both the Congress and the Senate, and the senator most critical of Duterte having been jailed on supposed drug charges, there is little hope of the Duterte drug war coming to a peaceable end any time soon. Parmanand warned that, as evidence from Colombia andM exico shows, such a violent crackdown on drugs may breed violent paramilitaries, as well as the deaths of even more of the Philippines’ poorest strata. 

by Florence Gildea