Phelim Kine on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte holding up and explaining a diagram of a drug trade network as a part of the war on drugs

Phelim Kine is a deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. Mr. Kine worked as a journalist for more than a decade in China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Taiwan prior to joining Human Rights Watch in April 2007. He has written extensively on human rights issues including military impunity, corruption, child sex tourism, religious intolerance, and illegal land confiscation. Mr. Kine’s opinion pieces on human rights challenges in Asia have appeared in media including the New York Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Forbes, The Guardian, and Foreign Policy. Mr. Kine has spoken publicly on Asia’s human rights challenges at venues ranging from the European Parliament and the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong to the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). On September 9, 2016, he spoke with Chuyi Sheng CMC ’17.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Phelim Kine.

In his presidential campaign video, President Duterte warned the voters that the Philippines would become a “narco-state” if no politician addressed the illegal drug problem. In your opinion, how serious is the drug problem in the Philippines? Is there a real crisis that calls for a draconian response from the government?

Every country in the world has a problem with drugs and criminality. Credible statistics suggest the Philippines’s incidence of violent crime and drug use is roughly equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, and less serious than that of Australia.  The campaign launched by President Rodrigo Duterte, declaring the use and sale of drugs as a “national emergency,” is completely unjustified, given the scale of drug problem in the Philippines. It is particularly unjustified given that the president has completely trashed the concept of the rule of law and basic universal human rights standards which protect criminal suspects from arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions or killings. 

The Philippines media quotes from an UN World Drug Report and claims that the country has the highest rate of shabu (Methamphetamine) use in the whole of East Asia. Do you think this statement justifies President Duterte’s war on drugs campaign? 

The use of “methamphetamine,” which is known locally as shabu, is used particularly among lower income communities in the Philippines. However, looking at the statistics, there is no apparent correlation or cause and effect between what undeniably is the existence of “methamphetamine” sale and consumption and criminality in the country. President Duterte’s claim that he is addressing a national emergency is patently false because there is no emergency that is reflected in any type of credible impartial studies of both criminality and drug use in the Philippines. Criminality and drug use are problems that every culture, every country deals with, to various degrees of severity.  The Philippines looks certainly nothing like a reasonable conception of a “narco-state.”  This type of phrasing is typical of the aggressive and violent hyperbole that President Duterte has deployed to try to convince the public and the international community that what he is doing is justified. By doing so, the president fails to protect the most fundamental right of his citizens – the right to be free from extrajudicial killings by unidentified gunmen or policemen.  
When President Duterte was Davao City Mayor, he gained enormous popularity due to his strong position against all criminal activities. Do you think he uses the current anti-drug campaign to obtain new legitimacy? 

President Duterte was the mayor of Davao City for twenty-two years. During that period, Human Rights Watch (HWR) documented the existence of a vicious death squad that was organized, paid for, and directed by elements of the municipal government and the police. The death squad killed hundreds of people. President Duterte himself has said that he believes up to 1,700 people were killed by the Davao Death Squad. Now there is no evidence directly connecting President Duterte to the death squad, but he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the death squad and for violent extrajudicial means of “crime control.” He extended that method to his electoral campaign and to his presidency. In an interview that President Duterte gave in the last of couple years, he said something very relevant to what we are seeing unfolding in the Philippines.  He said, but I am paraphrasing, his approach to governance is instilling fear in the public. By doing so, it is easier for him to exert power in terms of governance. What he has done effectively is stoke fear among the Philippines public so that they feel suddenly at the mercy of an uncontrollable force of drug users and drug dealers, which is completely at odds with the facts. It is President Duterte’s strategy in pursuing legitimacy. You can draw a direct line from how he governed in Davao to how he is attempting to govern the country. Unfortunately, that style of “governance” is victimizing both constitutional guarantees of basic human rights and due legal process, causing the death of more than 2,000 Filipinos since July 1st. 

Is President Duterte trying to divert the public attention from other urgent social problems by launching the anti-drug campaign?

What President Duterte has done is similar to what we have seen other demagogues, particularly in the West, do. That is to take complex problems, such as the problem of criminality and drugs, and present a simple and violent solution to problems that require complex solutions. In a country like the Philippines, there is a fairly wide and deep dissatisfaction with both the political process and the judicial process, which many people feel are corrupt and broken. Then President Duterte’s promise of a quick, simple and violent solution to problems does have some appeal for people who have otherwise lost hope in the slower, less predictable, and sometimes more agonizing process that a new democracy with problems of capacity and corruption deals with in terms of solving problems of criminality and drug. 

Davao City is considered the safest city in the Philippines. People give the credit to the strict rules enforced by President Duterte. Do you think his newly launched war on drugs can help the nation solve the drug problem or reduce crime?

If you go to Pyongyang, North Korea, you will find that there is a complete absence of street crime. If you visit any authoritarian state, you will find to a large extent that petty crime and street crime don’t exist. In authoritarian and non-democratic states, security forces are able to abuse the rights of citizens at will. Fear prevents people from committing crimes. That is a formula that modern, democratic and rights-respecting states have rejected. In this formula, the price of “security” and “safety” requires the sacrifice of key universal human rights, like the right of expression, the right of association, the right to life, and the right of due legal process. If you go to Davao City, you will find people who will tell you that it is a safe place, but you will also talk to people who will tell you that they have had brothers, fathers or sons killed by the Davao Death Squad. I think that making blanket assumptions that the people of Davao were very happy with Mayor Duterte’s rule is misleading. In fact, the rosy picture President Duterte tries to paint about the situations of safety and crime in Davao during his rule is misleading. During his mayorship, there was an active and vicious death squad that killed hundreds of citizens without any due legal process. People whom we don’t know whether they did drugs or did any kind of crimes — because they never saw lawyers and never went to courtrooms — were killed by some elements of a death squad operated by the police who decided that someone needed to die. Once that became the guarantor of the public safety of any society, the real safety and security are completely thrown out the window. That is the road President Duterte is leading the Philippines down right now. 

What is your opinion of the high support rate of President Duterte in the Philippines? 

We need to remember that President Duterte won the presidential election on a plurality of the vote with less than 40 percent of the electorate. That means more than 60 percent of the vote went to someone else and these voters did not want President Duterte. There is a frequently cited opinion survey that says there is a 91 percent approval rating for the president, but I have not been able to track the source of that study. I have heard, although I have not been able to verify, the survey was done in the week immediately after his election in May. I don’t know anything about the methodology of that survey. If it was the type of simple online survey, which anyone with a computer or smartphone could click on options — like “do you like or do you not like the president?” it is highly unreliable. Even though there are very strong and outspoken supporters who feel that President Duterte is taking the country along the right path with his war on drugs campaign, the death of more than 2,000 Filipinos in just two months is still highly problematic from a human rights perspective.  It is highly problematic that the campaign appears to override guarantees in the Philippines constitution as well as universal human rights standards. We should never mistake public support for a flawed and unlawful policy as something that validates the policy. 

Reports and statistics show that the general population of the Philippines welcomed the anti-drug campaign. What do you think of this phenomenon? 

Of the more than 2,000 Filipinos who were killed in the last two months, 1,011 were killed by police and 1067 by unidentified gunmen. These are police figures from July 1 to Sept 4. The vast majority of those people came from the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized citizens of the Philippines. These were urban slum dwellers, street vendors and petty cab drivers who existed on the periphery of society, often unemployed or underemployed. President Duterte and members of his government frequently refer to these people as drug lords. They are not drug lords, but poor people whose sole worldly possession might be a couple of flip-flops and some shirts. In areas where the poor live, there is a state of absolute terror rather than public support because of the way this anti-drug campaign is conducted.

In your opinion, is there a better and a more effective way to address the drug problem?
The statistics referenced in the Time magazine article show that compared with other countries, there really is not a drastic drug problem in the Philippines. A solution to the drug problem requires a multi-pronged approach. First, you need to look at disrupting the supply of drugs to the streets. You don’t do that by arresting or killing the street corner dealers because those people are easily replaced. Instead you need to disrupt the unlawful import routes of drugs. The action requires cooperation with other countries and international organizations to identify where the drugs come from and what are the best collaborative approaches to block these drugs. Second, the use of drugs emerges from a social and economic context. In the Philippines, the use of shabu or “methamphetamine” is very popular among low income Filipinos to a large extent because people in those communities are chronically underemployed or unemployed. For many people in those communities, drug use offers a momentary relief from the unremitting misery and impoverishment of their life. One way to encourage people not to use drugs is to improve their economic circumstances, which successive governments in the Philippines have failed to do for various reasons. Third, the people who are truly addicted to drugs, causing problems in their personal lives and families, need help. The help should not be a bullet to the head from some unknown gunmen or trigger-happy policemen, but the best international-practice rehabilitation services that enable the addicted people to overcome the addiction and rejoin society without having the burden of addiction in their lives. The solution to drug addiction is complex and multipronged; it needs an investment of resources and time; and there is no quick fix. It is similar to other difficult problems people and governments in the world wrestle with. 

News reports show that the drug users and drug lords who surrender to the authorities are basically left on their own. What’s your comment on the action of the government? 

The Philippines has a total of 44 drug rehabilitation centers for a population of 98 million. And those 44 rehabilitation centers have a total space for 5,000 people. Since President Duterte launch his drug war, an estimated number of 700,000 suspected drug users and drug dealers have attempted to surrender to the authorities, mostly because they are afraid of being killed by either the police or unidentified gunmen. A small proportion of that 700,000 people are now behind bars, which has worsened the problem of chronic overcrowding of the Philippines jails and prisons. The vast majority has gone to police stations and tried to surrender to the police, but instead the police have just registered their names and addresses, taken their pictures, and then sent them home. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented that increasing number of those people who have attempted to surrender, and went through that registration process, were killed or threatened by the unidentified gunmen several days later. There was a case two weeks ago. A man, who had registered with the police, was sitting around his table for Sunday lunch with his family.  Two unidentified gunmen came, wounded him, and killed his five-year-old granddaughter. It appears that elements of the police or the government are sharing the names and locations of suspected drug users and drug dealers with death squads. 

Where do you think the war on drugs will go from here? Will it just end quietly or will it always be the top priority for the president?

Here is what we know from history. Every country that has ever had a “war on drugs” lost the war on drugs. You can measure that loss in the lives of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of citizens who died in the fruitless, unlawful, and pointless government efforts intended supposedly to eradicate the drug trade. We saw this in South America, places like Peru and Colombia. When people ban, restrict or criminalize access to any type of drugs, starting with alcohol in the United States under prohibition, they immediately create a market for unlawful sales and purchases of that drug and have to deal with these unfortunate circumstances. 
What HRW and a growing number of non-governmental organizations advocate is decriminalizing drugs. Ending the war on drugs by recognizing that criminalizing drugs just creates criminal networks that will market drugs to whoever will buy them.  It fosters corruption between the police and the criminals to ensure that the drugs will get on the street and it creates endless number of victims, both in terms of citizens who end up behind bars for drug possessions or drug use and in terms of people who get killed because of the drug war. 

Essentially the movement now is recognizing that the drug wars are fruitless, damaging, inhumane and abusive. President Duterte and his campaign are going against the tide of history. He and his government need to stop and find the correct way to deal with drug problem.  

There is a lot of criticism from international organizations and Western countries after President Duterte launched his anti-drug campaign. Do you think there is anything that the international community can do for the Philippines? 

Major human rights groups, both international and domestic, have voiced serious concerns about what's happening in the Philippines. However, President Duterte and his government are turning a deaf ear to these criticisms and insist on pursuing this abusive course of action. The way to change the situation is for countries that have close bilateral relations with the Philippines, for example, the United States and the European Union, to make clear to President Duterte that unless his government changes the current policy and draws an end to this inhuman war on drugs, the country will risk its aid money, particularly the money for the military, police, and security forces. Close foreign bilateral donors need to make clear to the Philippines government that there will be a financial price to pay unless the country starts to respect its own constitution, starts to respect international human rights standards, and stops pursuing an abusive war on drugs that subjects its own people to extrajudicial murders.

Chuyi Sheng CMC ’17Student Journalist
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