On the invitation of the Philippine Ambassador for Belgium and Mission to the EU, H.E. Ambassador Victoria Bataclan, I visited Brussels on August 25 in order to share developments in the Philippines with Belgian and EU officials. It so happened that I was in the area, in Oslo, for peace talks with leaders of the Philippines’ communist rebels.
Like Europe, the concern for peace and security in the Philippines is a priority of the government. In a radical effort to turn the country around on a peaceful path, the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, has sought to make peace not only with the communists, but also with Muslim separatists. Both security problems are decades-old, and have held back the full growth potential of the Philippine economy, now with a base population of 104 million.
As a childhood friend of the President, and seeing his accomplishments in Davao as its mayor, I was one of the few who tried very hard to convince him to run for the highest office in the land. He was a reluctant candidate who filed his candidacy beyond the official deadline, so it was a big surprise to me that he won by such overwhelming numbers. He had no political machinery, and was an “outsider” — he comes from Mindanao, the poorest island of the archipelago. It does not help that the “inelegant” way he speaks is frowned upon by the traditional elite.
Yet, his campaign promise to rid the country of illegal drugs resonated strongly with the common Filipino, including those who are based abroad. In the democratic elections held last May 11, the will of the Filipino people spoke clearly and definitively. Everyday concerns of crime, corruption, and drugs — all of which are interlinked — were the people’s priorities.
For the outside world, nothing better illustrates the magnitude of the Philippines’ drug problem than the discovery, made in the previous administration, that the national prison houses and protects drug lords who blatantly ply their trade in its confines.
Statistics show that illegal drugs have affected at least 3 million Filipinos. If there are doubts about this figure, it must be said that even the government was surprised that in the six-week old war against drugs, more than 600,000 drug dependents have come forward to be rehabilitated.
The drug scourge is a problem that the Philippines, as a sovereign nation, will have to address primarily on its own. But since the illegal drug trade is international in scope, forces within and outside the country will do their concerted best to derail the momentum, using their vast resources. Regretably, some quarters are unwittingly helping them.
The most glaring is when drug-related killings are misframed as “extra-judicial killings” (EJK). Police authorities have been emphatic in differentiating the deaths that resulted when drug pushers used lethal force to resist arrest, and the deaths perpetrated by other elements, labeled as “vigilante killings”.
Attempts have been made to attribute vigilante killings to the President, who has employed colorful language and unconventional techniques. But as a lawyer and former prosecutor, the President knows the law thoroughly, and is aware of the limitations imposed by the law.
The killings being internationalized as EJK are plain and simple murder. These are criminal acts, being committed by drug syndicates. No ordinary Filipino would go vigilante, and police authorities have no reason to do so. Only corrupt policemen are capable of doing such extra-legal killings: in the face of the intense campaign against drugs, those involved in the drug trade are trying to erase implicating links. Sadly, the drug scourge has deeply embedded itself in all sectors of Philippine society, even in the police and the judiciary.
But it is also true that the intensified efforts can be abused by corrupt elements. It is important to therefore show to the Filipino people the unwavering commitment of the government to uphold human rights, by investigating the deaths that did not result from police operations.
Barely two months after the assumption of the Duterte administration, the war against drugs has produced massive gains. It is odd that years of lackluster attention from government and inaction has now led to suspicion about this dramatic turnaround. Although the campaign is being miscontextualized as about killing drug pushers, the reality on the ground is that it has yielded more than 11,000 arrests, on top of hundreds of thousands of drug addicts who have come out on their own.
In achieving these unprecedented figures, there was no government directive to disregard human rights. The use of lethal force is only necessary when the lives of the police in the buy-bust operations are in danger. In a country that was on its way to becoming a narco-state, drug dealers, who are also drug addicts themselves, have guns and regularly employ violence. Little attention is given to the fact that too many policemen have been killed by such criminals in the present campaign.
The overwhelming grassroots support that the President presently enjoys will only continue if the gains on the security front — in the war against drugs, in ending the communist insurgency and the Muslim rebellions — are sustained. At the end of the day, it is the Filipino people who will judge how true the President has been to his word.