Human Rights Violations in Duterte’s War on Drugs

By Kyla Eastling (CMC ’18)

While Rodrigo Duterte campaigned to become President of the Philippines, his record for cracking down on crime as mayor of the capital city was one of his biggest selling points. ­Thus, when he took office in June of this year, the public widely expected him to enforce strict anti-crime and anti-drug laws with a heavy hand. The international community did not anticipate the violence that would result from Duterte’s war on drugs, however. The President’s policies have led to more than 2,400 deaths (including civilian casualties) in just a few months. Many public officials and the UN have spoken out and charged that these killings are extrajudicial, and therefore constitute human rights abuses. As Duterte continues to reject diplomatic conventions and receive high approval ratings from the Filipino people, the international community faces the challenge of enforcing the international human rights laws that these targeted killings violate.

Duterte has been accused of inciting extrajudicial killings by both the civilians and the state, which, if true, would be a flagrant violation of international law: several UN officials have restated that the “incitement to violence and killing… [is] a crime under international law.” Both prior to and following his election, Duterte advised enforcement agencies to escalate their efforts against narcotics trafficking. Duterte explicitly encouraged these agencies to begin a “hunt” for criminals, including drug addicts. Officially, Duterte has never condoned the outright murder of suspects, but he makes clear that any violent resistance to law enforcement will result in police use of lethal force. Police officials have accordingly claimed that the staggering death count is due to officers acting in self-defense. Yet, even fellow government officials in the Philippines have cast doubt on this claim, citing the 1,391 deaths that they attribute to vigilante justice. Civilian vigilantes who murder drug users pose a problem for President Duterte, who has been reported to have extended the impunity for killing suspects to any citizen for the sake of the cause.

Enforcing national drug laws is, under normal circumstances, completely legal. Encouraging deadly punishment for being suspected of trafficking drugs without a trial is not. This is according to both the Philippine’s constitution and international law. The extreme death toll in recent months coupled with Duterte’s cavalier attitude toward civilian casualties has led human rights groups, churches, the EU, and the UN to condemn his actions. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Duterte to stop the extrajudicial killings, imploring him to use the legal process instead.

The law the UN officials cite is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is part of the International Bill of Human Rights. This treaty was written by the United Nations General Assembly and was both signed and ratified by the Philippines. Article 14 of the ICCPR governs the rights that a person accused of a crime will retain. One of these rights is to due process, which includes a presumption of innocence and the right to appeal decisions. The UN officials assert that Duterte’s endorsement of the extrajudicial killings bypasses due process.

The problem with the UN’s response is the lack of an ability to enforce the ICCPR. Officially, these statements by the UN officials carry the legal weight of a strong recommendation, and political pressure is normally sufficient to ensure compliance. In response to pressure from the UN, Duterte has threatened to leave the United Nations altogether; in this case, the ICCPR would not constrain him. Yet, as stated above, many other nations and government bodies have condemned the human rights violations occurring in this “war on drugs.” The US State Department, for example, has begun to retaliate by refusing to follow through with a sale of assault rifles to the Philippines’ police force. As the death toll continues to rise, it remains unclear whether the political pressure from domestic individuals and international institutions will be enough to see Duterte’s government address charges of human rights abuse.

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