Rodrigo Duterte would have been a scary classmate in high school. His hot-headed temper probably made him a bully, and he has outright admitted to killing someone when he was just sixteen years old because of “a look.” His aggression and violent disposition have carried over into his presidency of the Philippines, leading to one of the deadliest ongoing conflicts in the world: the Philippine war on drugs.
Duterte became president of the Philippines in 2016. One of the pillars of his campaign was a promise to end the illegal drug trade in the Philippines. Duterte encouraged police forces and even vigilantes to weed out drug users and traffickers with extreme violence, issuing a call to “slaughter them all.” The ensuing chaos has torn apart families and struck horror in hundreds of communities across the Philippines. Bands of masked men break into homes and kill mothers and fathers allegedly connected with drug usage. Police shoot first and ask questions later. In the last year alone, almost 4,000 Filipinos have been murdered by police and vigilante forces without due process of law, and the number continues to rise.
The violence has had national and international repercussions. Prisons in the Philippines are now overcrowded, with over 730,000 drug users and nearly 60,000 dealers having surrendered to the police. Human rights organizations have called out the government for such harsh abuses, and the United Nations has even threatened retributions such as economic sanctions, drawing indignation from President Duterte. In response to the accusations of human rights violations, Duterte has strengthened the Philippines’ ties with Russia and China, who have both proclaimed unconditional support for Duterte’s war on “drugs.” Duterte hopes these superpowers will protect his presidency from harm and use their UN Security powers to keep the Philippines from sanctions. President Trump has praised the Filipino leader, saying that Duterte is doing an “unbelievable job” handling the drug crisis.
It remains to be seen how pressure from the international community will shape Duterte’s policy on drugs. Considering Duterte’s approach to drug policy heralds a more violent iteration of our own war on drugs in the United States, which has continued now for more than forty years. Facing drugs with violence and incarceration hasn’t worked for us, and it won’t work for the Filipinos. Following Portugal’s example, multiple UN organizations have recommended that drug use be considered a public health crisis rather than a legal one. Hopefully, the crisis caused by such a violent regime in the Philippines will lead policymakers to seriously consider better ways to handle the drug problem. In the meantime, at least we can rest assured that Rodrigo Duterte won’t be a pothead anytime soon.