The Philippines’ War on Drugs Is Really a War on the Poor

Catholics light candles for the victims of the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers. Manila, Philippines, August 10, 2016. (Bullit Marquez/AP Photo)

Less than 50 days into the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, serious concerns are being raised over the hundreds of extrajudicial killings being perpetrated under the administration’s watch. Some have characterized the situation as a reign of terror, while Duterte himself has declared: “I don’t care about human rights.” While purportedly a war against drug dealers and users, the killings not only forgo the rule of law, but entrench disadvantage among the country’s poor.

Duterte’s inaugural State of the Nation Address reiterated the tough-on-crime rhetoric that propelled him to electoral victory. To many observers, the speech was in keeping with the president’s often meandering and contradictory public statements. Duterte said his administration will ensure that the “rule of law will always prevail,” but also threatened to put drug offenders “below the ground.” The address was best understood as a continuation of Duterte’s simplistic notion that fighting crime means killing perpetrators.

As early as 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the activities of vigilantes dubbed the Davao Death Squad, who murdered suspects with the complicity of local officials and police in the city in which Duterte served as mayor. These killings were often perpetrated in broad daylight and the victims were mostly petty criminals, gang members, and street children.

Fast forward to 2016 and the images of summary executions are again being cast against a backdrop of poverty, with the victims of Duterte’s latest sanctioned killings once more coming from the fringes of society. The key factor that has changed is that the so-called Operation Tokhang (“knock and plead”) is now being conducted on a nationwide scale.

The operation sees police officers visit suspects whose names have been drawn from lists  of drug suspects provided by barangay, or village, officials. These individuals are compelled to report to their nearby police station, confess their alleged crimes, and sign declarations pledging to mend their ways. These “surrender ceremonies” are conducted with much fanfare and media coverage, with participants labeled as offenders regardless of criminal liability actually being proven.

Duterte has simultaneously sanctioned the killing of suspects who do not participate in these processes, with the violence carried out by police and vigilante groups comprising active and retired officers, former communist guerrillas, and even guns-for-hire. These killings have become known as “cardboard justice,” owing to suspects’ bodies being dumped alongside signs scrawled with their alleged crimes. In some cases, individuals had attended a surrender ceremony, yet were still killed.

Affluent areas—whose residents typically consume drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine rather than the poor man’s shabu, or crystal methamphetamine—are largely spared from the surrender ceremonies and the killings. Gated communities in Manila, for example, can provide certification from homeowners’ associations that they are drug-free, which is enough to dissuade police officers from pursuing Tokhang activities. Rather than encouraging vigilante justice against them, Duterte has also granted personal audiences to drug trade figures of higher stature.

The fact that members of the middle and upper classes don’t suffer the consequences of the war on drugs has been key to these individuals considering the campaign as adequately restrained and lending it their political support. Unaffected overseas Filipino workers have also overwhelmingly backed Duterte and his positions, and have promoted a narrative that only the tough and patriarchal leader can transform the Philippines into a prosperous country similar to their host countries.

The Tokhang campaign ultimately suffers from assuming that local officials are trustworthy and that the information they provide is accurate. In fact, officials have themselves often been indicted for drug offenses, and the system in turn gives many the discretion to exact retribution on political enemies. The Philippines National Police Chief has admitted there is “not enough evidence” for most of the suspects called out by Duterte, and there have been many reported cases of identified names belonging to dead or even non-existent people.

Even assuming accurate information could be provided, there is a considerable risk of collateral damage from permitting lethal force against drug offenders. Police shootouts have suffered from mistaken identification of victims and have also resulted in the deaths of bystanders.

Though state-sanctioned, the Tokhang operation and the associated killings clearly contravene Article III of the Philippines’ Bill of Rights, which provides for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. While supporters of the violence may claim short-term gains, it is eroding trust between communities—particularly poorer ones—and authorities. At worst, it may embolden genuine criminal entities to escalate their own violence against ordinary citizens and security services alike.

Internationally, Duterte’s dismissive attitude to human rights may see foreign donors and multinational NGOs withdraw developmental aid to the Philippines. Coupled with the president’s campaign to reinstate capital punishment, the vigilante killings undermine Manila’s efforts to save Filipinos on death row in foreign countries. Though predicated on imposing law and order, Duterte’s campaign is likely to only create instability at home and abroad.

Joseph Franco is a Research Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.