The War on Drugs in the Philippines

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November 2017


The SSDP Mosaic is edited by Elise Szabo and Kat Murti. This issue features contributions by Jake Agliata and Justine Balane.

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On May 9th of last year, Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in a landslide, thanks in large part to an aggressively pro-drug war agenda. Duterte campaigned on a “tough on crime” platform centered around a plan to offer bounties to those who turn in drug lords, dead or alive, famously promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months in office, and upon taking office encouraged Filipino citizens take to the streets and kill suspected drug users and dealers, promising legal protection and rewards to those that did so.

The November/December 2016 issue of The SSDP Mosaic addressed the State-led slaughter in the Philippines.  At that point, at least 5,000 people had been killed in Duterte’s War on Drugs — 2,000 by the Philippines National Police, and 3,000 in extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings (killings by government officials or citizens with no legal basis). In July of 2016 alone, over 60,000 individuals addicted to drugs voluntarily turned themselves into authorities, motivated by a legitimate fear for their lives. In this Mosaic, we’ll take a look at what has happened in the past year, why that might be the case, and what hopes we have for the future…

What’s Going On In The Philippines?

In his 16 months in office, reports suggest that anywhere from 8,000 to 14,000 people have been killed under President Duterte’s campaign against drugs. The figures remain obscure as the government continues to deny official information on the killings.

The police have only acknowledged 3,900 of the killings and have denied that extrajudicial killings are even taking place, explaining the high death toll as a result of police officers defending themselves from “inhuman” drug users.

Meanwhile, support for Duterte’s policies has remained strong throughout the country, with 88% of Filipinos reporting that they support the ongoing drug war. Interestingly, 73% of those surveyed in the same poll do believe extrajudicial killings are happening, indicating that many support Duterte’s efforts to crackdown on drugs even if it means going outside the confines of the law. Duterte has ignored international calls to stop the killings and has rebuffed criticisms of his policies as being “soft” on crime as well as ignorant to the situation. Human rights activists who have gone into communities to gather data on the victims have repeatedly been  threatened with murder by Duterte on national television.  Unsurprisingly, calls by human rights groups to end the killings have been completely ineffective at swaying Duterte to change his mind. Duterte, who has previously announced that he “doesn’t give a shit about human rights”, has repeatedly said he believes it isn’t a crime to threaten drug traffickers with murder, famously stating “You destroy my country, I’ll kill you…And it’s a legitimate thing. If you destroy our young children, I will kill you.” In a move that many say is a direct response to criticism by human rights groups, lawmakers in the Philippines slashed the budget of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to just 1,000 pesos (about $20) per year. The move was supported by 119 politicians and rejected by just 32, demonstrating just how much support Duterte still has within his own government. Pantaleon Alvarez, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, defended the funding plan by calling the CHR “useless” and “and interested only in protecting the rights of criminals.” The CHR has been ineffective at fully investigating extrajudicial killings due to a lack of funding, and this move means that they will definitely be unable to take action anytime in the near future. While the majority of Filipinos still support Duterte, civil society and human rights groups in the Philippines have started an active resistance against the violent drug war. Vice President Leni Robredo delivered a video address at the 60th Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna where she condemned the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines. Robredo, who was elected independently of Duterte, called the international criticism of the drug war “inspiring” and called on the international community to ramp up its criticism. Meanwhile Senator Leila de Lima, who heads the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, has filed a resolution calling for an inquiry into the killing of drug suspects. Unfortunately, her opposition led to her arrest in February on charges alleging she received money from drug dealers, a claim that has yet to be proven. Many consider de Lima to be the first political prisoner under the Duterte administration. She has remained a vocal critic of the Duterte administration even inside prison, even receiving the highest human rights award from Liberty International. A growing number of UN member states and civil society organizations both within and outside the Philippines have also called on the Duterte government to end the killings, but Duterte has dismissed all criticisms. In September, his government rejected recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council to take action on the killings. Duterte’s response has prompted some to speculate whether the Philippines, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, could be kicked out of the international body. In October, a group of parliamentarians from the EU Progressive Alliance and the Party of European Socialists visited communities in Manila most affected by the killings and met with lawmakers during their two-day visit. They warned of trade implications between the Philippines and EU member states if the drug-related killings continued. Duterte was so angry by their presence that he demanded the seven delegates leave the country within 24 hours. Recently, Duterte has temporarily suspended “Operation Double Barrell”, the official name for his drug war. This means that enforcement of the country’s drug laws has shifted away from the national police and back to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. On the surface, this seems to suggest a return to normal and the beginning of the end to over a year of violence. However, this may just be for show as Duterte works with police and the drug enforcement agency to better legitimize the drug war. Edre Olallia, the president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, claims that the move is simply to shift blame for the killings away from the police and put the accountability on the drug enforcement agency.  It’s also possible that Duterte suspended the campaign due to the ASEAN summit in Manila.  

ASEAN Summit

From November 12th to 14th Manila City, the Philippines’ crowded capital, hosted 20 world leaders for the semi-annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization comprised of ten Southeast Asian states which facilitates economic, political, military, educational and cultural integration amongst its members. It was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand and has since added Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Aside from the ASEAN member-states, the gathering also included some of the most powerful world leaders, such as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, European Council President Donald Tusk, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, United States President Donald Trump, and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The state leaders discussed trade, investment, defense, and other cooperative activities. But underneath all the pageantry of the summit lies the bloody traces of Duterte’s drug war, and many felt that world leaders should have used this opportunity to call for an end to the violence.

Among ASEAN member states, there has been a deafening silence on human rights violations throughout the region. In addition to Duterte’s drug war, over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been subjected to violent attacks that have forced them to leave the country, Cambodia has executed a crackdown on the free press that has led half of the country’s opposition parliamentarians to flee the country, and Vietnam has escalated a crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists. Meanwhile, the head of Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency has made comments indicating that the country may soon adopt an approach similar to the Philippines. Some of the world leaders who joined the summit have already spoken out against Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign. During the summit itself, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directly raised his concerns about extrajudicial killings to Duterte. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said in advance of the summit that she planned on bringing up human rights with Duterte, and also stated she believes the number of deaths conducted during the anti-drug campaign merit “investigation and oversight”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also got into the mix, stating in his opening remarks at the summit that he wants to work with ASEAN member states to strengthen the region’s commitments to human rights. Human rights groups are watching out for other countries such as Australia and global institutions such as the European Union to put pressure the Philippine government. Not many expected U.S. President Donald Trump to breach the issue during his visit despite pleas from US lawmakers to do so, as Trump has previously admired Duterte’s violent approach. While a White House statement claimed that Trump and Duterte discussed human rights, this was denied by a spokesperson for Duterte. However, Trump did not make any public statements regarding the killings over the course of the summit. Duterte has also preemptively responded to all efforts by the U.S. to bring up the killings by declaring he will tell Trump to “lay-off” about human rights during the ASEAN summit. Outside of the summit, more than 2,000 citizens of the Philippines protested on the first day, calling for an international response to Duterte’s drug war and also criticizing the ongoing presence of U.S. military troops in Southeast Asia. Additionally, more than 270 groups and individuals have signed a joint statement calling on the world leaders to urge the Philippine president to accept a UN-led probe into the drug killings. Within ASEAN member states, there were several civil society groups who signed on and have been amping up the pressure for their governments to put human rights into the summit agenda. Unfortunately, since many of the other ASEAN member states feel similarly to Duterte regarding the drug issue, they had little success creating a human rights conversation during the summit. This was Duterte’s last summit as the ASEAN chairman, meaning that there won’t be another high-profile meeting like this for world leaders to make a statement about the killings. Many of those in the Philippines who oppose Duterte have taken the silence of world leaders at the summit as an admission that they do not take the issue seriously enough. Those in the international community who want Duterte to answer for his crimes must turn to other platforms if they want to stop the drug-related killings and install a health-based approach towards drugs.  

Youth Action & Hope For The Future

Young people have been among the most notable victims of Duterte’s drug war. A 17-year-old, Kian delos Santos, was killed in August by police who claimed that he resisted arrest by firing a gun back at police. A video from CCTV showed otherwise, indicating that delos Santos was actually blindfolded by cops, beaten up, and forced to hold up a gun before they shot him. Eyewitness reports confirm the accuracy of the video. The murder and subsequent video inspired outrage in many Filipino citizens — making it one of the first times Duterte’s drug war has spurred such a negative reaction. Catholic Bishop Pablo Virgilio David slammed the murder, famously stating. “who needs martial law if our police would behave this way?

Despite what appears to be a hopeless situation, there are young people in the Philippines who are giving the country hope that things may change. TIME Magazine recently listed two Filipino teenagers on their list of the “30 Most Influential Teens of 2017.” One of them, ninth grader Shibby de Guzman, was recognized for leading the #YouthResist protest against the Duterte administration in July, and for being a vocal opponent on social media to the ongoing drug war. De Guzman was one of the youngest people included on the list and was also praised by the imprisoned Senator Leila de Lima. She, along with other youth activists, have faced heavy backlash over social media, including death threats. Among the organizations who have been most vocal in their opposition to Duterte is Akbayan Youth, the youth wing of the Akbayan Citizen’s Action Party. The group was founded in 1997 and is comprised of about 8,000 members. Akbayan Youth identifies as a progressive party and follows an ideology based in Democratic Socialism, but in the wake of Duterte’s drug war has been working with young people across all political ideologies to aid in the opposition. They, along with Millennials Against Dictators and Student Council Alliance of the Philippines, were heavily involved in planning the July #YouthResist rallies. Two of the leaders of Akbayan Youth recently got in touch with SSDP after they learned Filipino colleges would start instituting mandatory drug testing to all students. We have been able to provide these young activists with resources, literature, and talking points on how to effectively lobby against this senseless policy. Akbayan Youth representative (and SSDP Ambassador) Shamah Bulangis accused police back in August of being selective with their enforcement of drug laws, ignoring drug trafficking in richer communities while waging an all-out offensive on poorer, impoverished communities. “Have you seen drug operations in Forbes? Have you seen war on drugs in Bel-Air? They operate in areas where people have nothing to eat, and yet they are accused of using the little money they have to buy drugs instead of buying food and paying their rent.” Another SSDP Ambassador, Justine Balane of Akbayan Youth, recently called out Duterte for being “all bark and no bite” when it comes to his comments on the UN.
Get Involved – Have a suggestion for a topic or want to see your chapter featured in the Mosaic? Submit your ideas, or  email Elise to learn more.Get involved with SSDP’s Diversity Awareness, Response and Education committee. – Know someone you think would find this interesting? Forward this email on and have them subscribe to the Mosaic. – Enjoyed the Mosaic? Donate to SSDP DARE.Each month, SSDP’s Diversity, Awareness, Reflection and Education (DARE) committee publishes the Mosaic, a newsletter dedicated to exploring intersectionality and the War on Drugs. Previous issues have covered topics such as  domestic violence, trans awareness, Black Lives Matter, and women’s unique experiences with the drug war.

The DARE Committee strives to promote inclusivity within the SSDP network, and facilitate collaboration and engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives, individuals, and movements. In order to ensure that the Mosaic more intentionally and meaningfully reflects these values, the DARE committee is pleased to invite members of our student and alumni network to submit ideas for upcoming issues. Don’t forget to join our Facebook group to keep up with regular DARE-related news and discussions.

If you have any questions, please contact Elise at We look forward to reading your submissions!

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more about these issues? These links are great resources to get you started…

Akbayan Calls Duterte’s Bluff on UN: Stop Blocking UN Probe on Killings

“If the Philippines under Duterte is to remain committed to democracy, we should scrap the drug war and solve the drug problem through a human rights- and health-based approach.”

Her Husband Was Killed in the Philippines Drug War. No One Would Help Her Find Answers.

“There is such a daily deluge of horrific images of the victims of these killings, and a real sense of absolute impunity in terms of the perpetrators being brought to justice, that for many people, silence seems the safest and most prudent option.”


Philippines Drug War Alarms 39 Countries in UN

“Aside from the US, the countries that signed the joint statement were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Ukraine.”


Philippine President Duterte Pauses ‘War on Drugs’ to Start ‘War on Scalawags’

“If the Philippines’ war on drugs isn’t working, it’s because of the corrupt ‘scalawags’ on the police force. Or at least that’s what President Rodrigo Duterte says.”


“They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals”

“Inside President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, our photojournalist documented 57 homicide victims over 35 days.”


Thousands Demand End to Killings in Duterte’s Drug War

“Protesters are demanding an independent investigation into the summary executions and police operations that left thousands of people dead. They said the president should be held accountable for the deaths.”


November/December 2016 Mosaic: Rodrigo Duterte, The Philippines, and the War on Drugs Internationally

“Though many in the international community have been horrified by Duterte’s methods, he boasts a high approval rating among his own people (though some argue that, within a historical context, his approval rating is not particularly notable).”


For more information on the War on Drugs , the impact it has on marginalized communities , and what it looks like outside of the U.S., check out  SSDP’s  new Just Say Know training curriculum lesson on Diversity Awareness Reflection and Education, developed with help from our very own DARE committee! This lesson is included as a 13th mandatory lesson in the 2nd Edition of the training curriculum, which was launched in October 2017. For more information about Just Say Know peer education training, check out or email Vilmarie.

Drug War News From Around The World

The War on Drugs is an international travesty. This section of the Mosaic, co-sponsored by SSDP’s International Outreach Committee, highlights  some of the top drug policy reform news from around the world.



Why So Few Australians Are Using Medicinal Cannabis on Prescription

“The most recent figures show that only 153 patients nationwide have been authorised to receive medicinal cannabis products under the Special Access Scheme. And only about 30 Australian doctors have been granted Authorised Prescriber status, prescribing cannabis products to a further 101 patients.”



Alberta Health to Make Announcement on Supervised Drug Consumption Sites

“Alberta’s first supervised drug injection sites will open within months at four locations in Edmonton’s inner city…Proponents hailed the news as a ‘long overdue’ step that will save lives.”


Ireland Medicinal Cannabis Bill Makes Progress in the Dáil Despite Expected Opposition “A bill seeking to legalise the prescription of medicinal cannabis as medication in Ireland has progressed to the next stage of debate in the Dáil, despite a recommendation that it should not be allowed to proceed.”


New Zealand

Referendum on “Obsolete” Cannabis Law “Long Overdue”

“New Zealand is one of the highest users of cannabis in the world, so I think we need to do something differently — and putting that out to the public as to what something different looks like is, in 2017, only fair and reasonable.”



Peru Approves Medical Cannabis

“Peru has approved measures to legalise cannabis for medicinal use with overwhelming support of congress. The law makes production, import and commercial sale of cannabis oil legal.”uy



Poland Legalises Medicinal Cannabis

“Polish pharmacists will be allowed to treat people with cannabis after the drug was legalised for medicinal purposes. Under new regulations…cannabis from imported plants can be processed at Polish pharmacies – as long as it has been logged with the country’s Office for Registration of Medical Products.”



UN Committee gives Russian Authorities 18 Months to Change Punitive Drug Policy Approach

“The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recommended that Russia change its punitive policy approach within 18 months and consider decriminalizing drugs for personal consumption.”



Senegal Makes Strides on Palliative Care

“A 2012 study found 16 of 22 countries in Francophone Africa have no healthcare providers specializing in palliative care, which focuses on pain treatment and quality of life. Yet, each year about 912,000 peoplethere, including 214,000 children, require palliative care. That number is likely to grow.”



Abolitionists Groups Respond to Minister Shanmugam’s Speech on Death Penalty

“Six abolitionist groups who have campaigned against the death penalty issued a joint response…to comments made by Singapore Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam during his speech at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs.”


United Kingdom

Drug Fatalities Highest Where Treatment Cutbacks Deepest

“More heroin and crack users are dying of overdoses in the areas of England where cuts to drug treatment budgets have been among the greatest.”