During his election campaign, Filipino Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte promised a brutal crackdown on drug peddlers. He promised to kill so many of them and dump their bodies in the Manila Bay that ‘fishes there would fatten’.
And kill them, he did. So much so that in just two months after assuming office, 25,000 drug peddlers and users have been killed in the Philippines capital. That is an average of about 44 deaths per day. In the relatively poorer neighborhoods of Manila, piles of bloodied bodies have become a common sight.
The outspoken President’s actions have invited criticisms from many corners. Human rights activists and organizations alike have been vocal in criticizing Duterte’s style. Many accuse him of promoting death squads to kill drug users and peddlers. According to human rights organizations, many of the deceased have been killed despite surrendering and many others have been killed simply out of their personal animosity with the police.
While Duterte’s way of curtailing the drug problem does appear extreme, it should be seen contextually. Philippines have been plagued by the drug problem since a long time. As of 2013, the illegal drug trade in the Philippines amounted to a whopping $8.4 billion. This is primarily because of the country’s geographical location which allows international drug syndicates to use it as a transit hub for the illegal drug trade. A Manila-based firm, Pacific Strategies & Assessments, in a report in 2009, identified the Philippines as "not only a transshipment point, but also a key producer of synthetic drugs for all of Asia". In 2012, the United Nations said the Philippines had the highest rate of methamphetamine use in East Asia.
In view of this, delay in taking strict action against the drug problem could have invited serious problems for the Philippines in the future. Although it appears Duterte has taken extreme steps to fulfill his promise of killing 100,000 drug peddlers in the first six months after taking office, his success as a Mayor of Filipino city Davao suggests otherwise. He is largely credited for changing the city’s notorious image and drastically bringing down the crime rate. His ruthless approach towards criminals resulted in Davao being one of the safest cities and Duterte earning the nickname ‘the punisher’. It is this very performance which won him the Presidential battle.
Much of the criticism against Duterte has come from organizations like the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which he has rightly termed as being ‘hypocrites’. In a dig against the UN, he accused the organization of ever being present to ‘criticize’ but never actually to help. Not just the UN, but even the Human Rights Watch has time and again proved its hypocrisy and its criticism of the Filipino President holds very little moral ground. The organization’s position has almost always been parallel to the US be it regarding the US missile strike on Syria in 2013 (a clear violation of the UN Charter) or when it comes to Saudi Arabia. Unperturbed by all these criticism, Duterte enjoys strong support amongst his fellow countrymen. A nationwide poll conducted in July, a month after he took office, found he had a 91% approval rating
But the leader needs to be careful on the way ahead. Although more than 700,000 drug users/peddlers have turned themselves in after Duterte’s war on drugs, most of those who have been killed or turned themselves in are low level drug peddlers. Many say that Duterte’s ability to control the drug problem can only be termed a success if he succeeds in bringing down the drug kingpins. Moreover, Duterte should also carefully avoid following Thailand’s path when it comes to ‘war against drugs’. Initiated by Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra in 2003, although the offensive against drug dealers and users started in a promising note, the extrajudicial killings reached unprecedented heights in the Thai capital ultimately contributing to its failure. While his no-nonsense approach to curtail the drug problem is definitely credible, Duterte should look at addressing the problem strategically in the long term and not just piling up bodies anymore.