Since his inauguration this past June, the potent combination of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s theatricality, popularity, and policies have put the international diplomatic community on edge. While Duterte is perhaps most widely known for his blunt and vitriolic rhetoric regarding other world leaders and their countries, his actions within the Philippines constitute a much greater cause for global humanitarian concern. Duterte’s intoxicating charisma has allowed him to openly support acts of extrajudicial violence without major retaliation, as has been the case in the Filipino War on Drugs. Duterte has allowed coerced confessions, encouraged vigilante murders of drug users, and applauded police killings of suspected dealers, which have cumulatively resulted in over 3,000 deaths since July. Moreover, the lack of a concerted and effective international response to these blatant atrocities is extremely disconcerting – the UN has done little to actively intervene in Duterte’s murderous agenda besides releasing statements condemning his actions. These actions align with the UN’s continued reluctance to change its position of prohibition-based drug policy, which has shown to be ineffective time and again. This time around, however, the UN must recognize its previous failures, outline a new plan of action, and make a concerted effort to aid the Philippines with this problem lest the country become the next in a series of all-too-familiar bloody battlegrounds in the worldwide War on Drugs.
Numerous complications could pervade a potential intervention in the Philippines. An outside intervention could inadvertently escalate the violence and have unexpected consequences for the South China Sea conflict in which the Philippines plays a key role. Furthermore, Duterte’s response could be drastic – he has already threatened to leave the UN and to sever ties with the United States, although neither of these statements seems near to fruition. However, the current situation in the Philippines demands urgent change. People are afraid to protest due to the fear of retribution by the state as extensive and violent personal attacks are launched on Duterte’s opponents. Furthermore, Duterte’s Drug War disproportionately targets the Filipino poor, for whom the drug industry is often one of the only means by which they can stay afloat. The population is affected by high levels of inequality as a quarter lives at or below the poverty line. A systemic lack of infrastructure, education, and jobs geared to help the Filipino poor escape poverty leaves many with no choice but to resort to the drug industry, while Duterte continues to allocate funding into antidrug and anticorruption measures. Rather than eliminating the problem itself, Duterte seems to be endorsing the elimination of those he deems problematic through means that violate both domestic and international law, and barely anything seems to be standing in his way.
One of the major contradictions in Duterte’s case is that he enjoys astoundingly high approval ratings and won the vote of the majority of the Filipino electorate based on his promise to reduce drug use, a problem that has plagued the country for years. However, education, rehabilitation, and other public-health based policies are more effective than violence in curtailing drug use. The UN is famously steadfast in its commitment to policies that center around prohibition. This is far from the first time that it has failed to act in regards to a drug conflict plagued by ceaselessly escalating violence, even where its favored approach of prohibition and legal crackdown were obviously ineffective. Indeed, this definitive reluctance toward international involvement is perhaps the most consistent characteristic of drug conflicts across countries with varying spheres of influence, cultures, histories, ideologies, and approaches to drugs within their own borders. Mexico, Colombia, and even the United States are all names of countries in which insufficient interventions and the inability of prohibition-based policy to diminish the intensity of the conflict. Indeed, Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, which had seen over 160,000 deaths related to drug violence between 2007 and 2014, made a point of calling UN policies that treated drug problems as criminal rather than public health issues “insufficient.”
Historical precedent and the inertia of longstanding policy are likely large factors in the absence of efforts to aid the Philippines in reforming policy toward drug use and curtailing violence. But in a world where demagogic leaders are on the rise, it is more important than ever for the international community to take a definitive stance against leaders who actively flout the law and target those who lack means of defense. Vague condemnations have done nothing to prevent the ugly consequences of Duterte’s rhetoric. The recently escalated Drug War in Indonesia is already displaying similar veins of violence against similar segments of the population, as it is troublingly yet tellingly inspired by Duterte’s example in the Philippines.
The UN has already failed once to meaningfully reform its drug policy this year, and the situation in the Philippines is – in part – a manifestation of the continued consequences of such stagnancy. In April, despite the support of numerous world leaders, UNGASS did not alter drug policies in any substantial way. This lack of reform effectively left individual countries with the responsibility of creating such change themselves and gave the message that the international community would provide individual countries little support in this endeavor. So far, many countries are beginning to favor and implement decriminalization and rehabilitation policies in the hope of eliciting positive change. In Mexico, for example, Peña Nieto has announced his intention to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana — a small step in a big direction. However, in countries where these sorts of policies continue to be ignored, like the Philippines, the likelihood of further bloodshed is all too clear. Duterte had promised to end his campaign within the year, but he has already asked for an extension, and there is nothing stopping him from “asking” his government for extensions over and over again, while civilians to continue to perish in the crossfire. As Duterte has a habit of pointing out the hypocrisy of the UN and the international community, the UN has a chance to begin making a tangible impact in an area of great need. Even if these changes are not implemented, world leaders can open a new kind of dialogue with the Philippines and begin a new movement toward decreasing the violence that is inherent in the global War on Drugs.
In a world where Donald Trump has somehow won the American presidency, allowing Duterte to continue his Drug War rampage with minimal inhibition is a precursor to allowing more leaders like him to ascend to power, decide to pursue similar goals, and use the same extrajudicial, wholly illegal, and historically ineffective methods. Duterte’s crusade is a targeted abuse of his power, and the international community needs to take a firmer stance. While he may be difficult to communicate with, the UN and other countries must at least attempt to push for different kinds of policies both in the Philippines and in other countries experiencing such violence and abuses of human rights.