[rev_slider alias="blog-post-header"]


Apr 21, 2017 | Commentary

Editor’s Note: Part one of a two-part special feature on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines.

Although the Republic of the Philippines (hereafter referred to as ‘the Philippines’) is not generally recognised as a violent or fragile state, since ex-Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected President on 30 June 2016, the country has been regularly making the headlines. The war on drugs Duterte has been waging since becoming President, and to which he partly owes his victory, has proved to be particularly bloody.

The UN defines security sector reform as a process which goal is: “the enhancement of effective and accountable security for the state and its peoples, without discrimination and with full respect of human rights and the rule of law”. As reports continue to flow of extra-judicial killings and police impunity, and as Duterte continues to shrug away concerns from international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), questions arise as to the stability of the Philippines in the coming years.

People killed in the war on drugs

People killed in police operations

People killed by unknown suspects

A bloody war on drugs

One of the key messages of Duterte’s presidential campaign was his promise that, if elected, in the first six months of his campaign he would kill 100,000 drug users and pushers. Seven months later, the numbers are telling: according to the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), as of 14 December 2016 a total of 6,095 people had been killed in the war on drugs. However, perhaps even more worrying than the number of people, are the details of these deaths.

According to the breakdown of the statistics reported on the ICTJ website, of the total death toll, 2,102 people were killed in police operations while 3,993 were killed by unknown suspects. The police often justify these killings as a consequence of resisting arrest. While there is little evidence to prove the veracity of the statements made by the police, witnesses tell the media that victims are actually given little to no warning. There is little evidence to sustain these claims too, however in a relationship between the state and its citizens, it’s the citizens’ feeling of trust in their institutions that will ultimately determine state stability.

This trust is also being eroded by the fact that, although the government has given drug abusers the opportunity to surrender and join community rehab programmes, the 700,000 people who have thus far taken this opportunity are not safe either. On 2 September 2016, the Financial Times (FT) reported that Gilbert Camiguel, who had surrendered to the authorities in a bid to get clean, was shot one month later just outside his house in a low-income neighbourhood of Quezon City, in the Manila metropolitan area. According to other local sources, this is far from being an isolated incident, and while the police and the drug pushers are busy accusing each other, no investigation is taking place.

A documentary by journalist Jason Motlagh of the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, ‘Philippines: The Execution Beat’, may contribute to shedding a light on the reported 3,993 deaths by unknown suspects, of which Mr Camiguel seems to be part. Broadcasted on Al-Jazeera, the documentary reveals that a large share of the killings are carried out by contract killers, “some of whom are on the payroll of corrupt officials involved at the higher levels of the drug trade”, outlines the project’s web page. Amongst others, it features a young woman who, helped by her husband who drives the motorbike, kills for $150 per hit, up to $400 for renown pushers. These extra-judicial killings carried out by vigilantes are increasingly harming societal cohesion in the poorest areas of the country, where strong inequalities can push people to undertake lucrative illegal activities, such as drug pushing or killing for money.

Civil society rising up

As the death toll continues to increase, civil society is increasingly voicing its concerns through the publication of statements in traditional and social media.

For instance, the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), one of the largest umbrella body of civil society organisations in the Philippines, recently held a general assembly during which it passed a resolution calling on all government arms (legislative, executive and judiciary) to respect human rights in this war against drugs. Additionally, there are on going discussions amongst CODE-NGO members on educating their partner communities about the legislative tools at their disposal to protect themselves and assert their rights against house searches or arrests without warrants by the police. Similarly, The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines is regularly publishing media statements condemning the extrajudicial killings carried out under the blanket of the war on drugs.

Activists working for the protection of human rights are also forming networks focusing on promoting human rights and the rule of law against the war on drugs. This includes, for example, the Network Against Killings in the Philippines (NAKPhilippines), which also regularly issues media statements, and the In Defence of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDefend), launched by thirty Filipino human rights groups to provide legal services to families of victims of extrajudicial killings.

Finally, the catholic community has been increasingly vocal in its criticism against the drug war, with organisations such as the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines and the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines publishing statements. This is of particular importance in a country where 81.03% of the population is catholic, according to the website catholic-hierarchy.org.

Institutional responses

There are four bodies in the Philippines responsible for ensuring police accountability: the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR), the Office of the Ombudsman, the People’s Law Enforcement Board and the Internal Affairs Service (IAS). There is no online publicly available information regarding cases handled by the Office of the Ombudsman, the People’s Law Enforcement Board or the IAS, which makes it difficult to assess to what extent these bodies are being effective in addressing the concerns of the victims of the war on drugs. Nevertheless, a bill was filed last January by Senator Panfilo Lacson to strengthen the IAS and ensure that, if an investigation against an erring police officer has not been concluded within 30 days, appropriate administrative and/or criminal charges will be filed immediately.

The CHR, on the other hand, regularly publishes statements condemning the war on drugs. More specifically, a statement from 16 February 2017 welcomes the Philippines’ Court of Appeals decision to grant a permanent protection order to victim survivors of the war on drugs. The court order ensures that the respondent policemen in the cases are not allowed within one kilometre of the petitioners’ homes or work addresses and that they be reassigned to offices in other areas. This represents, according to CHR, “a strong message from the Judiciary of its adherence to the rule of law and its commitment to upholding human rights in the country”, the press release states.

In addition, a Senate committee on justice, human rights and public order carried out an investigation on the extrajudicial killings that took place in Davao during Duterte’s terms as a mayor, as well as the alleged Davao Death Squads (DDS) carrying them out,. It included six hearings during which witnesses came to testify that the extrajudicial killings are state sponsored. In its final report, the committee concluded that none of the victims had succeeded in providing enough evidence for their claims, effectively clearing Duterte. The panel, however, urged him to exercise more caution with his rhetoric regarding the war on drugs, as it may easily be interpreted as an endorsement of extrajudicial killings.


Alix Valenti is an independent consultant and a freelance journalist focusing on issues of governance, defence and security.  She writes articles on naval procurement and security in the Asia Pacific for defence magazines such as Armada International, Asian Military Review and Asia Pacific Defence Reporter. She also writes on military procurement in the US for Special Operations International, and on country security (France, Papua New Guinea) for Jane’s Intelligence Review.

She holds a PhD in development planning from University College London, and her thesis focused on understanding the impact of international statebuilding on state-citizen relations through an analysis of social cohesion in post-conflict urban spaces. She lived in Timor Leste for ten months to carry out her PhD field research, interviewing government officials, staff members of INGOs and CSOs, and community leaders as well as community members.

Alix has ten years of experience working as a consultant for ICF International, carrying out especially evaluations and impact assessments of European migration regulations for the European Commission Directorate General of Migration and Home Affairs (HOME). As a full-time member of staff, she managed large teams, including country experts, and carried out stakeholder consultations in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. As a sub-contractor, she has continued to focus on stakeholder consultations in France, Italy and Switzerland.