As Duterte's drug war worsens, Thailand provides a glimmer of hope

(Photo: Noel Celis/AFP)

This is a guest blog by Maya Levin Schtulberg


Since Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency began in July 2016, nearly 6,000 people have been killed in the Philippines’ brutal war on drugs. More than 700,000 have surrendered themselves to the authorities. Prisons and treatment centres have subsequently been flooded way over capacity.


Duterte, while likening himself to Hitler, has been quoted saying he would be happy to slaughter three million drug addicts. The Inquirer’s constantly updating ‘Kill List’ exemplifies how widespread an impact Duterte’s campaign has had. This record began on the day of Duterte’s inauguration and is still on-going with three or four names being added every single day. Regardless of whether these ‘suspected drug pushers’ were indeed involved with drugs does not take away from the fact that each of these names belonged to a person who was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent.


Human rights abuses have been copious as Duterte continues to demonise drug addicts. This demonization dates back to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs where addiction to narcotics was constituted as ‘a serious evil…fraught with social and economic danger to mankind’. Drug users who are associated with this ‘serious evil’ do not have access to human rights under Duterte’s rule. Considering that in the current climate, getting away with murder is as simple as hanging a sign around a body reading ‘drug pusher’, Duterte has potentially created the perfect scenario for powerful drug lords and gang members to kill their rivals with impunity and expand their power.


There is a grand total of 44 rehabilitation centres across the whole of the Philippines. With hundreds of thousands of addicts having surrendered themselves in a desperate attempt to avoid death, the infrastructure to treat them all simply does not exist. Simultaneously, Human Rights Watch have reported that prisons, which already had serious health and sanitation issues, are now bursting at the seams.


Particularly at risk, in the current situation, are the street children of the Philippines. During his 22 year-long role as mayor of Davao City, Duterte was suspected of enforcing ‘death squads’ to eradicate crime. Street children were a significant percentage of the victims of these death squads. Since becoming president, Duterte has directly spoken out against street children, implementing a curfew and attempting to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9. Several have been reported to have been caught in the crossfire of official police and vigilante extrajudicial killings in the last 5 months.


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared a war on drugs very similar to Duterte’s: over 2,000 people were killed and 320,000 were imprisoned. These harsh policies caused drug users to be driven further underground and methods of consumption became more dangerous. Individuals switched from smoking to injecting, sharing needles and rushing the injection process to avoid getting caught. This massively increased the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Meanwhile, the stigma associated with HIV and drug consumption made these users less likely to seek out medical help. Although it is still too early to see the long-term implications in the Philippines, Thailand’s 2003 experience sheds light on the potential consequences.


Today, 13 years later, Thailand’s Minister of Justice Paiboon Koomchaya has admitted that this ruthless and violent approach has not worked. He has said that methamphetamine is less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes and he has declared that the world must ‘come to think of how to live with drugs’. The country is now in the process of revising their drug policies where legal regulation of methamphetamine is being considered as a viable policy. Whatever is decided, there is a clear transition occurring where the Thai government wants its new drug policy to be more humane, a policy where far fewer lives will be negatively impacted by incarceration and execution. It would appear that there is a valuable lesson to learn here for the Philippines.


(Photo: The Nation)

With over 5 and a half years left on Duterte’s presidency term and significant support for him by Philippine’s civilians, it seems this war will continue for some time, despite adamant condemnation by the UN, the EU, the USA and human rights organisations worldwide. The long-term implications are yet to be seen but it is hard to imagine that ruthless violence, over-crowded prisons and a lack of help for those that require treatment will result in a particularly positive and constructive future. As Transform advocates, legal regulation over a ‘war on drugs’ has the potential to protect human rights particularly among young and vulnerable populations, protect and improve public health, improve development and security and reduce drug-related crime and violence. In order for Duterte’s ‘war’ to be seen as the inhumane campaign that it is, drug users must not be associated with evil. This ‘evil’ dehumanises them and results in a massive violation of their human rights.  

Edited by Danny Kushlick