Can Civil Society Win Duterte’s Brutal War on Drugs in The Philippines?

December 7, 2016; New York Times

In “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” Daniel Berehulak for the New York Times offers a graphic and profoundly disturbing series of images and some surveillance videos capturing the antidrug campaign underway in the Philippines since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016. The Times photojournalist documented 57 homicide victims.

I have worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone, a place gripped by fear and death. What I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers’ summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes’ taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to “slaughter them all.”

He said in October, “You can expect 20,000 or 30,000 more.”

On Saturday, Mr. Duterte said that, in a telephone call the day before, President-elect Donald J. Trump had endorsed the brutal antidrug campaign and invited him to visit New York and Washington. “He said that, well, we are doing it as a sovereign nation, the right way,” Mr. Duterte said in a summary of the call released by his office.

More than 727,600 drug users and 56,500 dealers have voluntarily surrendered to the government. The Times depicts the ghastly conditions of the prisons in which they are being warehoused. In addition to the many people killed in the official drug operations, there are 3,500 “unsolved homicides” since July, according to the Philippine National Police. The Philippine Daily Inquirer maintains its own “kill list.”

This is a growing tragedy NPQ has addressed before. This update looks at what civil society is doing to oppose what appears to be state-sponsored extrajudicial executions and state-incited vigilante killings.

Internationally, hundreds of civil society and human rights NGOs have joined the media and the UN in condemning and demanding an immediate stop to the killings. Duterte’s spokesperson dismissed all of this as “unwelcome meddling.” On November 28th, Duterte appeared to threaten outsiders intent on upholding human rights in the Philippines.

The human rights [defenders] say I kill. If I say: “Okay, I’ll stop,” they [drug users] will multiply. When harvest time comes, there will be more of them who will die. Then I will include you among them because you let them multiply.

While the European Parliament, Sweden, and the International Criminal Court are among the very few known to have expressed concern, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Brunei (and here) have expressed support. Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister said, “We respect the method undertaken by the Philippine government as it is suitable for their country situation,” while stressing that Malaysia uses its own antidrug campaign methods.

President Rodrigo Duterte enjoys an 86-percent job approval rating, according to a widely reported Pulse Asia Research poll conducted from September 25th to October 1st. To dissent is not only dangerous, but also unpopular. Some Philippine legislators proposed new Senate bills to restore capital punishment and to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9. The Chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry assured his constituency in September that foreign investors would be undeterred by the Philippines war on drugs: “They don’t care if 50 percent of Filipinos are killing each other so long as they’re not affected.”

One political opponent had the nerve to suggest that President Duterte’s war on drugs was merely a ploy to change the subject: “Suddenly, the historically most important issue of poverty was no longer the most important.”

Leila De Lima actually led a Senate investigation into the drug war killings. Duterte immediately discredited her to the press: “Here is an immoral woman….Here is a woman who funded the house of her lover. Those money came readily from drugs.” De Lima, at least for the record, expressed frustration with the attitude of Filipinos towards the extrajudicial killings: “They think that it’s good for peace and order. We now have death squads on a national scale, but I’m not seeing public outrage.” Duterte inelegantly dismissed De Lima: “Until now she keeps on yapping…I would like her to eat it in my presence. But I cannot do it because it is not an acceptable edible food for persons.”

Perhaps one of the best hopes for civil society in the Philippines to make gains against the rising grim statistics of the war on drugs is the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), a nonprofit, national human rights organization. TFDP issued this statement last August protesting the drug war killings and calling for an independent investigation. In addition to documenting human rights violations and supporting the victims and their families, TFDP is working to bring international human rights instruments to their country. These include the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Declaration on the Right to Development, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Some 30 human rights groups in the Philippines launched the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDefend) to provide legal services to families of victims of extrajudicial killings. A lengthy statement by the grassroots iDefend on December 1st opens this way:

On Monday this week, President Duterte threatened to kill human rights defenders criticizing his war on drugs. And so it is revealed. The main program of the President for this country is to kill. Kill suspected drug peddlers yesterday, human rights activists today, kill all opposition voices tomorrow.

Will civil society be able to help resist the killings? The Asia Development Bank offers this comprehensive overview of civil society through history and today in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Berehulak begins his Times article by writing, “You hear a murder scene before you see it: The desperate cries of a new widow.” He concludes his article with these chilling words:

As my time in the Philippines wore on, the killings seemed to become more brazen. Police officers appeared to do little to hide their involvement in what were essentially extrajudicial executions.

“There is a new way of dying in the Philippines,” said Redentor C. Ulsano, the police superintendent in the Tondo district. He smiled and held his wrists together in front of him, pretending to be handcuffed.

Too often, political rhetoric compels some to inappropriately compare their opponents to Hitler. Duterte welcomes the comparison:

“Hitler massacred three million Jews,” Mr. Duterte said after returning to the Philippines from a trip to Vietnam, understating the toll cited by historians, which is six million. “Now there is three million, there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Electorates also inappropriately assume that a Hitler can never rise again. How does it happen? Hitler’s approval ratings rivaled Duterte’s today. That is how it happens. As long as a German was not a Jew, Hitler’s massive public works (the autobahn, for example) and general economic turnaround touted by Goebbels’ propaganda machine made him as beloved as Frederick the Great and Bismarck. As long as you are not a drug user in the Philippines, Duterte’s boast about being “happy to slaughter” three million of his own people gets a pass by 86 percent of Filipinos, as well as by many nations.—James Schaffer