Philippine President Duterte’s drug war sparks international controversy

October 13, 2019

By Yilin Wang

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following the passage of an Iceland-initiated resolution in July, the United Nations (U.N.) launched an investigation into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in the Philippines. The crackdown, which Duterte initiated in 2016, has featured the extrajudicial killing of suspected criminals, drug dealers and drug addicts. According to official police reports, the directive has resulted in over 6,600 deaths as of July 2019. However, activists have alleged the death toll to be as high as 27,000.

Duterte has sparked controversy since his entry into the political arena. The Filipino strongman has repeatedly expressed a hardline, violent vision for combating drug abuse problems in the country. He has cautioned the nation against the possibility of becoming a “narco-state” and urged Filipino citizens and policemen to kill drug criminals through extrajudicial means, even offering to reward them for doing so. Shortly after his landslide victory in 2016, Duterte directly addressed drug addicts and dealers in the country, saying, “My order is [to] shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights; you better believe me.”

Speaking to the SAIS Observer about the issue, Professor Vikram Nehru of the Southeast Asia department at SAIS commented, “One has to separate the individual – Duterte – from the challenge of drugs in the Philippines. It is a reality that the drug problem is serious in the Philippines, and with the presence of strong drug lobbies and mafias, it is questionable how effectively the Philippines police and judicial system would have handled it. This is not to condone President Duterte’s methods – they are highly objectionable and rightly condemned by the international community – but it is instructive that he has the overwhelming support of a Philippine public fed up with the deteriorating law and order problem in the country. His net satisfaction rating among the voting public is around the highest it has been for any Philippine president in recent history.  When Duterte was Mayor of Davao city, he had similarly applied brutal and extrajudicial measures to take on the drug problem, and the result was a sharp decline in drug-related crime, a resurgence in investment in small businesses, and an acceleration in economic growth and employment. He remains popular there to this day. His popularity in Davao and in the rest of the Philippines, however, fails to take into account the long-term damage his extra-judicial drug war is inflicting on the rule of law and the role of public institutions in the country.” 

The drug war has attracted widespread international criticism. The International Criminal Court (ICC) condemned the violent campaign as a crime against humanity and in 2018 announced a “preliminary examination” into the issue. Duterte responded by unilaterally withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC tribunal. The Iceland-led U.N. resolution passed in July represented another attempt by the international community to hold the Philippines to account. Despite strong opposition from Philippine representatives, the resolution eventually garnered support from 18 of the 47 countries on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Duterte responded by saying that Iceland’s only problem was “too much ice” and there was no crime or policemen in the country as people just “go about eating ice.” He added that Iceland could not understand the social, economic and political problems of the Philippines. Striking a more serious tone, Duterte answered his critics in his 2018 State of the Nation Address, saying, “Your concern is human rights—mine is human lives.”

So far, the ICC and U.N. have made limited progress in influencing the drug war. Last month, Duterte suspended all negotiations on grants or loans from the 18 countries that supported the U.N. resolution, making clear his aversion toward attempts of foreign intervention. “In Duterte’s war on drugs, we see the government directly undermining institutions which they [sic] deem corrupt and ineffective. However, the long-term impact will be the denigration of already shaky institutions and a serious attack on the law of the nation itself, not to mention the proliferation of firearms and self-styled vigilantes. A multilateral could step in and offer funding and advice to fix corrupt and inefficient police or judiciary institutions. They could also attempt to influence Duterte’s policy through a variety of means such as lobbying, raising international pressure or even withdrawing funding as punishment. However, this situation is complicated by the fact that Duterte himself is opposed to institutions, and by extension, international institutions. Thus, to criticize him publicly [would] only further consolidate his mindset and his populist cries against foreign interference,” said Andrew Pince, a first-year MA student who worked in Southeast Asia for several years.

Despite the controversy Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown has ignited overseas, his efforts have rallied popular support in the Philippines. From 2016 to 2018, the crime rate in the Philippines fell by 20%. A domestic poll from last month showed that 82% of Philippine citizens surveyed were satisfied with Duterte’s campaign and perceived less drugs and crime in the country. Previous surveys conducted by different agencies returned similarly positive results. “I don’t think this statistic is surprising. It is normal for citizens to care more about outcome legitimacy as fewer crimes and drug abuse incidences have a direct influence on their life quality. People at multilateral organizations might worry about the procedural legitimacy, but not the citizens,” said Jiayuan Wang, a second-year student in the International Development program at SAIS.

Will Duterte’s approach to addressing drug abuse and drug-related crime influence other countries’ drug policies? There is already discussion about whether countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh may wage their own “Philippines-style” war on drugs. Professor Nehru thinks this outcome unlikely, however. “I doubt that the Philippines model is going to influence other Asian countries. First, it is difficult to see another Asian leader challenge public opinion and public norms with such impunity as Duterte has been able to do in the Philippines. Second, the single-term six-year tenure of the Philippine president gives the incumbent a certain invulnerability that other Asian leaders don’t enjoy. For example, in a parliamentary system such as the one in India or Bangladesh, the prime minister’s tenure can be cut short by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Finally, political and judicial institutions in other Asian countries are of varying strength in the checks and balances they exert through the legislature, the courts, the armed forces, and political parties. It is not by accident that countries facing similar challenges tend to adopt very different responses tailored to their conditions,” he said.