By Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Special Features Editor
Edited By Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Senior Special Features Editor
On June 30, 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the Philippines’ 16th president. After beating three opponents, Duterte won the presidential election by sixteen million votes with his “change is coming” message. Throughout the campaign, Duterte was referred to as “the Punisher” for his tough policies against alleged criminals and drug dealers.
When first elected to his six-year term, Rodrigo Duterte faced a number of pressing issues. Although the nation of ninety-eight million people was considered one of Asia’s best-performing economies, the sluggish growth since the end of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship was visible to its citizens. With 60% of the total labor being employed by small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), many Filipinos still faced significant financial issues. With its capital, Manila, dominating the economy, terrible traffic and deteriorating infrastructure made the city unlivable.
Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with the outgoing President Benigno Aquino. (Photo courtesy of Ted Aljibe)
Aside from policy issues, Duterte quickly formed his government to begin implementing his initiatives. He surrounded himself with a very capable economic team who could stabilize and build on the current economy. His other cabinet picks included a wide array of politicians with great records. Furthermore, he selected the national police chief who is known for his tough approach to criminality.
Although there were a number of other pressing issues facing the country, President Rodrigo Duterte was most famously elected to “eradicate” drugs, crime and corruption in six months. During his time as the mayor of Davao City for twenty-two years, although challenged by some, he is credited for turning the city from the Philippines’ most deadly into one of its safest. In the city of 1.5 million, Duterte conducted an operation to execute suspected criminals in the street. As a candidate for the Philippines’ 2016 presidential elections, Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 criminals while in office in order to control the country’s crime problems.
At his election victory event in Davao City, he encouraged ordinary citizens to kill by saying “do it yourselves if you have guns, you have my support.” After he took office, he went further and again urged his citizens to kill drug addicts as “getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” He blatantly stated that he did not care about human rights or due process in his country if it could eliminate the drug and crime issues in the Philippines.
Since taking office, Duterte ordered his police force to eliminate criminals. By rewarding police officers who killed drug lords with cash prizes, police killings in the Philippines rose 400% nationwide. In fact, Duterte promised to protect the police from prosecution if they killed suspected drug dealers. This began his six-month campaign to fight against the drug problems in the Philippines.
When Duterte was first elected to office, around 1,027 people were killed during police operations based on the national police report data gathered from July 1 to September 5, 2016. With over 15,000 arrests and 686,000 surrendering voluntarily to police, the war against drugs had a huge impact on its citizens from the beginning. At the time, according to records, there were at least 1,500 pending cases under the category of “found dead body, under investigation.” Despite the increased number of police killings in the country, the national survey showed around 91% of Filipinos having a “high degree of trust” with their new government.
Towards the end of September 2016, President Duterte’s government demoted a high-profile politician from serving as the head of a committee investigating Duterte’s extrajudicial killings. Senator Leila de Lima, a former Justice Secretary, had led the opposition against the government’s war on drugs. Senator de Lima had claimed that over 3,000 have been killed in the eleven weeks since Duterte was sworn into office. Among the many deaths, Maria Aurora Moynihan, daughter of British baron Anthony Moynihan, was regarded as one of the highest profile victims. She was found shot dead with a sign over her body reading “drug punishers to celebrities, you’re next.” In a recent investigation, hitman Edgar Matobato testified under oath that Duterte ordered him to assassinate criminals while serving as the mayor of Davao City. He further claimed that Duterte himself had killed an agent and that the President’s own son was a drug user.
Although Duterte’s government justified the removal of Senator de Lima by stating that she was using the committee for “personal political vendettas,” many strategists believe that it was due to the recent incident with Matobato and his testimony.
Moreover, soon after Matobato’s testimony, President Duterte released a list of 1,000 “narco-politicians” and other officials with suspected drug links. Many analysts believed that the list indicated that the anti-drug campaign would be longer than six months and that Duterte was ready to ask for an extension.
Since Senator de Lima’s removal from her post, many began to doubt the country’s democracy. Human Rights Watch stated that Senator de Lima’s removal was a “craven attempt to derail accountability for the appalling death toll from the abusive war on drugs.”
In October 2016, President Duterte gave a speech in Manila which included police statistics on his drug war operation. In his speech, he claimed that two policemen were dying everyday due to the war with illegal drugs. However, based on the official data, only thirteen police officers were killed in a three-month period. During this time, numerous reports came out claiming that Duterte was exaggerating statistics to make a claim for his campaign. In fact, on July 25, 2016, President Duterte, during his inaugural address to the nation, claimed that there were 3.7 million “drug addicts” in the Philippines. However, based on a survey conducted by the Office of the President’s Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) in 2015, the Philippines has fewer than half the number of “drug addicts” stated by Duterte. Based on DDB data, about a third of the 1.8 million drug users had taken drugs only once in the previous thirteen months. The records also showed that around 860,000 consumed drugs, such as crystal meth, or shabu, which are considered highly addictive drugs.
Rodrigo Duterte appoints Aaron Aquino as the head of the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency. (Photo courtesy of EPA)
In his address in September 2016, Duterte claimed that the number of “addicts” would rise to four million and declared that the anti-drugs operations in his country would go on until June 2017.
In addition, a booklet handed out by Duterte’s government in September 2016 at a regional summit in Laos stated that 75% of the country’s “heinous crime” is drug-related. However, per the booklet, the definition of heinous crimes include murder, rape, human trafficking and treason, not drug crimes.
Keeping his promise, the anti-drug campaign extended into 2017 and the Philippine police released additional statistics. According to newly obtained information, the government performed over 40,000 anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to January 7, 2017. During this time, over 2,000 drug abusers were killed and around 44,000 people were arrested for drug-related offenses.
Furthermore, the police visited six-million houses during this period to persuade suspected abusers to submit themselves to a drug rehabilitation program. Based on these visits, over one-million people surrendered. The police further recognized that over 4,000 suspects were killed by vigilante-style killings, which is considered the most controversial feature of Duterte’s campaign. Finally, around thirty police officers and three soldiers were killed during the six-month period.
Many supporters of President Duterte and his campaign viewed these statistics as positive figures as the country vows to turn its tide on drug related crimes. However, many human rights organizations raised serious concerns over how the campaign was being carried out in the country.
The campaign came to a brief halt in January 2017 when rogue officers killed a South Korean businessman, Jee Ick-joo. Following the death of Mr. Ick-joo, President Duterte stated that he was “embarrassed” that the officers engaged in kidnapping which led to the South Korean’s death. Duterte’s police chief, Ronald de la Rosa stated that the police “will dissolve all anti-drug units in the police.” Although the killings did not stop entirely, around sixty-nine people were killed in March, which is at a much slower pace than previous rate of killings.
After the killing of Jee Ick-joo, President Duterte has tapped the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to lead the anti-drug campaign. Since the agency took over the campaign, Duterte was reported to take a “hands-off” approach when dealing with the drug war. He went even further and instructed the agency to not provide reports to him and left it completely up to the agency to execute the operation.
Despite the brief pause, President Duterte solidified his campaign in September 2017. In a vote of 119 to 32 in the country’s congress, the Philippines government reduced the annual budget of the Commission on Human Rights from $17 million to just $25.
The opposition members believed that this was the government’s retaliation against the Commission on Human Rights for being critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Phelim Kine, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, accused the government of attempting to eliminate independent institutions from investigating President Duterte’s possible examples of abuse of power. Congressman Edcel Lagman, who opposes the budget cut, stated that the President is “virtually imposing the death penalty on a constitutionally created and mandated independent office.”
As President Duterte’s anti-drug war continued, in September 2017, the President’s eldest son, Paolo Duterte appeared before the Senate and denied any connection to a seized shipment of $125 million worth of drugs from China. Many opposition members alleged that Paolo Duterte assisted in easing the entry of the drugs, but the President’s son denied the allegations. President Duterte has repeatedly stated that he will resign as president if any of his family members were involved in corruption.
The international community has been critical of President Duterte’s war on drugs. Recently, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) called upon Duterte’s government to end all extrajudicial killings in the country. The organization cited “several credible reports and documentation” showing that many extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, and internal displacements were occurring. Moreover, as an organization with a consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the group cited that “the number of individuals suspected to be involved in illegal drugs who apparently fell victim to extrajudicial or summary killings during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte ranges from 8,000 to 12,000 dead.”
In addition, earlier in November 2017, many human rights experts at the United Nations released a joint statement insisting Duterte’s government to cease any attacks and killings under the president’s war on drugs.
Conversely, President Duterte was also vocal in the international stage. At the 31st Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in November 2017, Duterte shared harsh words with Canada’s Justin Trudeau for commenting on his war on drugs campaign. Duterte characterized the comments made by the Canadian prime minister as “insulting” and said that “I only answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners. Lay off.”
Last year, Duterte made headlines for insulting former President Barack Obama when he raised serious concerns about Duterte’s campaign and its human rights violations. After the comments were made by the former president, Duterte announced that he would break all ties with the United States. However, since President Donald Trump took office, the relationship has regained its strength.
President Donald Trump and President Duterte met during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit. During the visit, President Trump did not mention Duterte’s drug war. Instead, Trump praised Duterte’s hospitality. The White House stated that the meeting primarily focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade. However, the Philippines government stated that the two leaders talked at length about the Philippine’s war on drugs. Unlike former U.S. leaders, President Trump did not mention human rights issues. The two men spoke previously over a phone call where President Trump commended Duterte on his anti-drugs operations. Moreover, during the call, Trump allegedly criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and stated that he “did not understand” the drug issues facing the Philippines.
The recent reports out of the Philippines still showed a strong support for President Duterte’s war against drugs. Since the beginning of his pledge to control drugs and crime in the country, international human rights organizations reported that around 13,000 people have died from extrajudicial killing in the country. However, Duterte remains a very popular figure in the country as most are not impacted by his campaign. Statistics show that seven out of ten Filipinos still support Duterte’s war on drugs. Many believe that it is because the killings are happening in the poorer parts of the country.
President Rodrigo Duterte and President Donald Trump holds a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit. (Photo courtesy of New York Times)
In an address to his country, Duterte instructed the Philippine National Force to stop all operations related to the campaign. Although the killings have not stopped completely, it is seen as a positive step towards stopping extrajudicial killings in the country. Following the recent changes, President Duterte appointed a new chief to the Philippines’ anti-drug agency, PDEA, Chief Aaron Aquino. Since Chief Aquino began his position, only one suspect had been killed in 1,341 operations.
Under Chief Aquino’s leadership, the agency vowed to wear body cameras when conducting operations to show that they are following the law. In a recent statement, he stated that he hoped the operations would be transparent and asked “the media to join in on the operations so they will see everything from the very start of the operations to the end.”
The PDEA has stated that they have arrested more than 400 people in the month of October and apprehended around $1 million worth of illegal drugs. Although the Philippines National Police (PNP) withdrew from leading Duterte’s anti-drugs operations, Chief Aquino noted that the PNP is still being consulted on “high level” operations. This is partly due to the shortage of officers available to PDEA as the PDEA has around 2,000 officers compared to the country’s 165,000 police officers.
President Duterte recently stated that if the drug problems worsen, he is willing to put the PNP in charge of the operations once again.
For more information, please see:
ABC – Philippines: Commission on Human Rights budget cut to almost nothing amid Duterte’s drug crackdown – 13 September, 2017
ABS CBN – Int’l lawyers’ group urges Philippines to end killings, rights abuses – 30 November, 2017
Al Jazeera – Philippines: Inside Duterte’s killer drug war – 8 September, 2016
BBC – Duterte drug war: Philippines cuts rights body’s budget to $20 – 12 September, 2017
BBC – Philippine anti-drug agency chief vows ‘rule of law’ – 23 November, 2017
CNBC – Doubts grow over democracy in the Philippines after Senator Leila de Lima’s ousting – 22 September, 2016
CNBC – Trump does not publicly rebuke Duterte for drug war killings – 13 November, 2017
CNN – Rodrigo Duterte inaugurated as Philippines president – 30 June, 2016
The Diplomat – Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ in the Philippines: By the Numbers – 9 January, 2017
The Guardian – Rodrigo Duterte calls Justin Trudeau’s questions about war on drugs an ‘insult’ – 14 November, 2017
The Guardian – Thousands dead: the Philippine president, the death squad allegations and a brutal drugs war – 2 April, 2017
Huffington Post – Duterte Deploys Questionable Data To Justify The Philippines’ Drug War – 24 October, 2016
The Independent – Philippines cuts its human rights budget to £15 – 13 September, 2017
NPR – Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte Sustains Support For Deadly War On Drugs – 13 November, 2017
Time – Rodrigo Duterte Has Been Sworn In as President of the Philippines – 30 June, 2016