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May 12, 2017 | Commentary

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

True to his style thus far, Duterte has continued to shrug at any national or international organisation accusing him of being responsible for the rise in extrajudicial killings since the beginning of his war on drugs. In an interview with CIVICUS, an international alliance of civil society organisations, Roselle Rasay of CODE-NGO indicated that: “Recently, the President said he will also kill human rights advocates if the campaign against drugs is stopped because of them and the illegal drug problem gets worse”.

His own discourse regarding his alleged involvement in the Davao Death Squads (DDS), responsible for extra judicial killings while he was mayor of the city between 1988 and 1998, is equally revealing of a character that has little regards for others’ opinion. At times he has discarded the idea, while in other instances he has openly declared being part of the so-called DDS and even bragged about having killed drug dealers himself. Although polls appear to show that his popularity remains unaffected, serious doubts are slowly being voiced as to the impact of this security sector reform on the stability of the Philippines over the long term.

Effective and accountable security

As noted in the first part of this blog post, 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”.

Looking at Duterte’s security sector reform for the purpose of the war on drugs, a central tenet of his presidential campaign, one could argue that it has, indeed, been successful in producing the desired or intended results – at least in part. Duterte ran on the promise that he would kill 100,000 drug users and dealers within the first six months of his campaign in order to eradicate the problem of drug abuse. While he may not have reached his intended initial target, the death toll of 6,095 people by 14 December 2016 is nevertheless telling of his resolve.

The effectiveness of the method in eradicating the issue of drug abuse, however, remains debatable. Indeed, while it is true that people have come to fear the police, this fear campaign is doing little to address the root causes of drug abuse and dealing. Rather, as the problems that push people to use or push drugs subside – often related to socio-economic challenges – it is more likely that drug users and pushers will find new ways to hide from the authorities and continue as they were.

As for state accountability, Duterte’s reactions to opposition are a clear indication that he does not believe he is accountable to anyone other than the people who voted for him to eradicate drug-related crime. For instance, the ICC issued a statement indicating that extrajudicial killings “may fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court… if they are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population pursuant to a State policy to commit such an attack”. Duterte has responded by saying he would pull the Philippines out of the ICC; meanwhile, to date no one has been held accountable, within the police force, for the extra judicial killing cases brought to justice.

At national level, Senator de Lima, a lawyer who served as justice secretary during the former administration and who more recently chaired a senate inquiry into the extra-judicial killings of drug suspects, has been removed from her position as inquiry chair and an active campaign against her was launched by Duterte and his allies in the Senate. From the beginning of Duterte’s term she had been a strong opponent of his war on drugs and had even gone so far as to calling in former DDS members from Davao to testify that Duterte himself had been involved in some killings.

Human rights and rule of law

The evidence provided in the first part of this blog, drawn from reports published by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI), as well as from international and national media sources, overwhelmingly demonstrates that the war on drugs Duterte is currently waging pays lip service to the respect for human rights. It also goes to show that his understanding of the concept of rule of law somewhat differs from what the UN had in mind when drafting its definition of security sector reform.

The new laws regarding the consequences of drug use and dealing may be clear, publicised and perhaps, according to some who still support Duterte, just; however they are certainly not applied evenly and they do not protect fundamental rights. There continue to be attacks being perpetrated against people who voluntarily surrendered, like Gilbert Camiguel, and, despite the promises made by the government, of the thousands who surrendered only few have been rehabilitated, according to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR). Similarly, in a statement published on 3 March 2017, the CHR noted that the jails of the country are heavily congested, a fact widely reported across international media as well. It is therefore clear that the security sector reform operated in the context of the war on drugs is not fair or efficient, nor does it protect human rights, therefore disregarding the rule of law.

Implications for stability in the Philippines

Following an incident involving a South Korean businessman who was strangled by officers at police headquarters late last year, Ronald dela Rosa, national police chief, called for a one month suspension of the war against drugs in order to carry out internal cleansing and rid the force of police abusing their power. The suspension, which took effect in February, was meant as a gesture of good faith by government authorities, showing that security sector reform, and within that the war on drugs, was indeed meant to provide security for the state and the people.

The suspension, however, only lasted a month and the war resumed amidst dela Rosa ‘hopes’ for a bloodless operation. According to a HRW dispatch published on 11 April, 107 suspected drug users and drug dealers were shot dead by police between 6 March and 10 April, with dela Rosa arguing that this was proof of the war becoming less bloody. Duterte, on the other hand, announced on 20 March: “I do not want to see military men and dead men on my side, getting killed. I’d rather that the criminals, however thousands or millions they are, they should be the first to go”.

The Philippines does not have a history of violent revolutions but its people have, nonetheless, already ousted a dictator in 1983. While currently local polls are showing that Duterte continues to enjoy the support of 78% of the population, two key considerations should be kept in mind: firstly, votes for Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the US have already shown the limits of polling; secondly, Filippino opposition lawmakers have just drafted an impeachment complaint against Duterte, which should be reviewed in May when Congress resumes. Thus, while it is unlikely that the Philippines will experience significant instability or conflict soon, it is much more probable that, as the drug on war shows its limits and socio-economic issues remain unresolved, the share of the population most affected by the extra judicial violence will slowly start turning against Duterte.


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.

Feature Photo: Flickr/U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal