In June 2021, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into the alleged human rights abuses and targeted assassinations in the country between 2016 and 2019, that is, during the regime of the President Rodrigo Duterte. Since he assumed power in 2016, President Duterte has been waging a war against the drug networks and drug consumers, infamously known as ‘War on Drugs’. Well known for his controversial statements, Duterte declared soon after taking office that he wanted to kill all the drug dealers. “I don’t care about human rights”, he had said. In total, the authorities have reported 8000 casualties resulting from his ‘War on Drugs’. Human rights organisations, on the other hand, report a figure that is three times higher than that quoted by the Filipino authorities. 

The rise of a populist president

Rodrigo Duterte has earned tremendous and a largely unexpected success. Before his elevation as the President, he was no stranger in the Philippines political scene. He was the mayor of Davao (the third most populous city of the archipelago) for more than 20 years. With credit to his policies (although not without the respective controversies), Davao had gone from the status of the most dangerous to the safest city in the country. The Time magazine dubbed him as the ‘Punisher’. However, despite some popularity and success in Davao, Duterte was far from being the favourite in the 2016 presidential elections. Till the end of 2015, his candidacy was not taken seriously and still viewed with contempt, and pre-election trends were still in favour of Grace Poe, Mar Roxas and Jejomar Binay, the then Vice-President. 

Duterte’s success was possible due to two factors. Firstly, the previous ruling regime of the powerful Aquino family went through a credibility crisis. Indeed, it is largely based on the fight against corruption that the Aquino Presidency legitimised its image. But on several occasions, notably over the dispute between peasants and the Aquino-Cojuangco family regarding the Luizita hacienda, public opinion turned against the family that paved the way foe Duterte’s popularity. Secondly, the overall economic success achieved during the Aquino administration eluded a trickle-down effect, keeping the lives of the socio-economically deprived sections unchanged. The country’s progress gave the impression of benefitting only the middle and upper classes of the society. In this context, Duterte’s background of a self-made man with no inroads into Manilla’s political elite appealed to the citizens. Moreover, his successes in Davao regarding the fight against criminal networks had been widely publicised throughout the country. 

Duterte’s decision to make drugs problem central to his electoral strategy was a strategic choice. Indeed, the problems associated with drug trafficking were visible in the country since long. It also allowed Duterte to establish a direct link between the corruption of the elites (who often collaborated with drug traffickers) and the daily life of the Filipinos. Duterte was the only candidate speaking directly of the issues of corruption, organised crime and drugs. This discourse, combined with the social and political context of the Philippines worked wonders for Duterte’s reputation, winning him elections. Duterte was elected in May, 2016, winning 38.6% of the votes, far ahead of his main rival Mar Roxas, who only gained 23.45% of the votes. 

War on Drugs

In June 2016,  the newly elected leader (before taking office), issued an explicit call threatening drug traffickers: “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun – you have my support.”. He further stated: “Shoot him and I’ll give you a medal”. His speech was heard and since Duterte has taken the office, on June 30 2016, blood has been flowing in the Philippines. 

To better understand the complexity of the situation, we must understand the drugs problem in the Philippines. The most commonly used drug in the country is neither ecstasy, heroin nor cocaine, but Shabu. This methamphetamine has the advantage of easy manufacturing and simultaneously not being very expensive. As a result, its use is widespread, even among the poorest. It is sold locally by networks of traffickers, the cartels, but behind it, there are powerful criminal organisations involved, such as the Chinese Triads, domestic and foreign syndicates, armed gangs, politicians, senior officials and judges also involved in the traffic. Before Duterte’s arrival into the national politics, all of these problems were well known but they were not part of media or political discourse and remained at the margins of policymakers’ concerns. All of this changed after Duterte took power. 

The official statistics of his campaign called ‘Double Barrel’ report more than 80 000 anti-drug operations resulted in the arrest of 120,000 people and seizures of drugs worth more than 13.3 billion pesos between July, 2016 and December, 2017. In addition, more than 1.3 million people surrendered voluntarily to the authorities. Impressive by its numbers, the War on Drugs is however complex in many ways. The state has to fight at different levels: against consumers, local traffickers and international intermediaries. Duterte is essentially continuing the same operations that took place in Davao for 20 years, but this time at a national level, that involves massive utilization of the state machinery. The deaths resulting due to the War on Drugs, at least 6,000 as of 2020, were the result of the impunity on part of the authorities. Further, instances of atrocities have been reported done during these police operations, where suspected drugs traffickers and consumers are eliminated. Others are killed by unidentified assailants and death squads. As the statistics show, there is a large number of victims by now, and some deaths have even been a result of old vengeance, which finally found the opportunity to be exercised with impunity. Anyone with the remotest of the connection to drugs is under threat, even if it goes back to the past. These threats are blurred by the absence of the rule of law. Duterte’s War on Drugs has created a climate of constant violence and fear in the Philippines, with thousands of families grieving their losses and anyone related to drug trafficking living in a constant state of fear. 

Beyond the scandalous number of deaths, Duterte’s War on Drugs comes across as a policy directed against the since these victims mostly hail from the lower strata of the society. This came to light when Filipino prosecutors closed a case involving leading drug traffickers; it was found that the government was targeting only small traffickers, while sparing the bigger cartels. This sense of insecurity felt among the disadvantaged populations had been reinforced by the murders of a teenagers in August 2017 by the police – in the slums of Caloocan City in Manilla. At the same time, Duterte has used his War to target his political opponents as well. Senator Leila de Lima, former head of the Human Rights Commission in the Philippines and Minister of Justice under the Aquino administration, was accused of drug-trafficking and incarcerated. Rolando Espinosa, the Mayor of the city of Albuera, was also accused of drug-trafficking and killed in the prison. President Duterte does not hesitate to use his War on Drugs to intimidate, neutralise his opponents and protect his political interests. 

International condemnation

Duterte’s methods in his War on Drugs constitute a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In light of the human rights violations happening in the Philippines, international rescue committees, humanitarian aid organisations, and the broader international community need to come forward to condemn Duterte’s policies. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been particularly virulent and have produced many reports aiming to raise awareness on the ongoing human rights violations in the country and condemn Duterte. Despite national and international condemnations, Duterte still supports the extra-judicial measures by the enforcement authorities.  

The ICC had already conducted preliminary examinations back in 2018, prompting Duterte’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC. Despite this withdrawal, (with effect from March 17 2019) the ICC continues to have jurisdiction over the crimes perpetrated on the Philippines, and has decided to open a formal investigation in 2021. This investigation will cover alleged crimes committed by the Duterte administration, in particular crimes against humanity, between July 2016 and March 2019. However, Duterte has declared through his spokesperson that he would not cooperate with the ICC. As the ICC lacks surrogate enforcers and requires the state’s cooperation to get the information it needs, Duterte’s unwillingness to cooperate might hamper the ICC’s investigation in the Philippines, at least until the end of Duterte’s mandate in 2022. 

Duterte’s presidency has been marked by violence and human rights violations in the name of his national War on Drugs. He was able to win the 2016 Presidential Elections thanks to his discourse as a man of the people, against corruption and his focus on stopping drug trafficking in the archipelago. The measures he used in Davao for 20 years should, however, have been premonitory of what was to happen at the national level. In Davao, Duterte supported death squads and the summary killing of hundreds of suspected petty criminals. Since his election, it is now thousands of people murdered in the fight against drugs trafficking. Duterte’s focus to murder disadvantaged people and his opponent politicians have only reinforced national and international condemnation of his abuses. Now that the ICC has opened a formal investigation into the ongoing War on Drugs, one could hope that it would work towards ending impunity in the Philippines. However, with Duterte unwilling to cooperate, the ICC might not be able to carry on with its investigations at least till the end of his mandate. 


By Louise Bouet

Louise is an International Relations student at King's College London. Research interests include human rights, gendered-violence and international mediation.

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