Government News Analysis

The restive season

PNP Antidrugs War

Yesterday afternoon, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent his policemen back onto the streets to re-engage the drug gangs which are far from ready to give up their lucrative turf. Street prices of drugs, which eased during the absence of direct police action over the past two months, will start to soar again as pushers come under increasing pressure from law enforcement and addicts become wary once more of getting caught up in the conflict.

Duterte suspended Philippine National Police (PNP) units from the War on Drugs on 10 October following public outcry over two suspicious deaths in Caloocan City, Metro Manila in August, blowback from 39 United Nations member countries in September –expressing concern over the human-rights situation in the Philippines – and a dip in Duterte’s net-satisfaction rating in polls in October.

But while the halt of operations was welcomed by the human-rights lobby, which regarded it as a victory; as well as by the quilt of Left and Liberal political groups in the Philippines who oppose Duterte, and media critics of the president – not to mention the drug lords who quickly renewed their activities – Duterte’s supporters have continued to urge the PNP’s reinstatement.

Indeed, announcing the resumption of PNP involvement yesterday, Presidential Spokesperson, Harry Roque, said there’d been a “public clamour” for them to return. He also confirmed that there had been a “notable resurgence in illegal-drugs activities” and associated crimes during the PNP’s absence.

Certainly, drug-associated crime had gradually increased over the past two months, but the real impetus for revitalising the War on Drugs comes from Duterte’s grassroots following which believes he should be allowed to carry out his mission to cleanse the country of illegal narcotics unhindered. This mission was a key promise of his election campaign and one his supporters are unlikely to let him forget.

Of course, the resumption of the PNP’s role in Operation Double Barrel – the two-pronged campaign to kill or capture both the big and the small fish from the drugs underworld – is like kicking a hornets’ nest. And the combined wrath of every anti-Duterte faction – from student groups to Roman Catholic clerics, to the human rights network and every part of the political Left – can now be expected. Watch this space, the media are about to have a field day.

As Duterte throws his drugs war back into gear, local and international opposition is primed to reach new heights with the approach of Christmas. In the Philippines, the Festive Season is likely to be the Restive Season as rallies compete for space with Christmas shoppers and priests work drugs somehow into their homilies on The Nativity.

Coincidentally, a week before Christmas is when martial-law provisions are due to expire in Mindanao, where the country’s military recently put down a major Islamist insurgency which saw the capture of a southern city by Islamic State-affiliated fighters. Duterte’s opponents are as committed to ending martial law in the Philippines’ southern region as they are to stopping the drugs crackdown.

Their main public-relations weapon in their anti-drugs war barrage is the issue of extrajudicial killings – or EJK as they’re more popularly known. But what exactly are EJKs? Other than being an opposition war cry, what sets them apart from any other form of killing?

Here’s the definition under international law: “… any killing by government forces as well as killings by any other groups or individuals which the government fails to investigate, prosecute and punish when it is in a position to do so”. [Bold type is ours]. That explanation was given by former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (2004-2010), Professor Philip Alston.

Meanwhile, the United States’ Torture Victim Protection Act (Section 3a) defines an EJK as: “a deliberate killing not authorized by a previous judgement pronounced by a regular constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. Such term, however, does not include any such killing that, under international law, is lawfully carried out under the authority of a foreign nation”.

Both those guidelines, then, put the onus on opponents of Duterte’s War on Drugs to prove that deaths arising from firefights between Philippine lawmen and the country’s drug elements were extrajudicial executions. And, so far, they’ve offered no actual evidence of that.

By contrast, with regards to the UN definition, the PNP has released figures and other details of dug-war victims whose deaths are being investigated. Currently, that figure is 2,290. So as far as investigating those deaths is concerned, that obligation is being observed.

Prosecuting and punishing them is quite another matter, however – but this is the Philippines where the judicial process moves at the pace of glue. That’s not an anomaly of the present administration; it’s an untreated condition from which Philippine justice has historically suffered.

The best example of that for the context here is the long-lingering case of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in which 58 people – among them 32 journalists and media workers – were butchered to death in the worst incident of election-related violence in the country’s history. Sanctioned, allegedly, by a powerfully political ruling regional clan, these killings really were extrajudicial.

But eight years on, the prosecution and punishment of all those responsible still remain a long way off. In 2010, Senator Joker Arroyo calculated that with about 200 defendants and 300 witnesses, the trial would last for two centuries. Prosecution lawyer, Harry Roque – the same Harry Roque who now speaks for the president – felt that the senator was exaggerating. By his calculations it would only take 100 years.

With regards to the US definition of EJKs, meanwhile, the PNP and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) – the lead agency which originally took control of this campaign following the killing of a South Korean businessmen by rogue Angeles City cops in October last year – have been authorised by the president of a sovereign state to deal with a problem which threatens the stability and the rule of law of that state.

Furthermore, all due warnings were given to those purveying and purchasing illegal narcotics in advance of launching the campaign. They were told unambiguously by Duterte – in language they could understand – that their activities would not be tolerated and that the full weight of the law would be brought to bear if they committed offences. Addicts and pushers, meanwhile, were urged to surrender to the authorities – and some 1.4 million of them did.

But there’s another definition of EJKs worth looking at. This one refers to them as: “killings wherein the victim was a member of, or affiliated with an organization, to include political, environmental, agrarian, labor, or similar causes; or an advocate of above-named causes; or a media practitioner or person(s) apparently mistaken or identified to be so”.

That definition comes from Administrative Order 35 which was signed by the country’s former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, on 22 November 2012. It was also the definition used by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano (then a senator) in his presentation to the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in May. Cayetano argued that killings not identified by the order were treated as either homicide or murder.

It seems, though, that AO 35’s terms of reference were meant exclusively for the period of Aquino’s presidency; that they became redundant at the same time he did. Certainly, they’re not being applied by the human-rights lobby and others in Duterte’s case.

But then the human rights groups don’t seem bound by any particular principles. Nor by accurate reporting. For example, they claim that there’ve been as many as 13,000 EJKs committed by security forces and groups under their influence since the War on Drugs started. Yet they’ve failed to produce any actual factual proof for this claim. However, neither they, nor the Liberal Party-led opposition, nor the anti-Duterte mainstream media seem too concerned about that.

The key point is that they can use this number to generate a groundswell of resentment against the government – mass hysteria even. And if the hysteria starts to fade, they can add another three or four thousand to the number to help it rise again. After all, no one’s going to check.

By contrast, the PNP has produced verifiable figures for the drugs-war death toll. These show that from 71,393 individual anti-drug operations – conducted by the PNP and the PDEA between July 2016 and September 2017 – there have been 6,225 drug-related deaths of which 3,850 occurred during police actions.

Significantly though – and this considerably weakens the argument that there’s some sinister order in place to exterminate all drug felons from the face of the Philippines – those operations resulted in 109,090 arrests.

In other words, just 3.3% of all those encountered in all operations died at the hands of the police. The sheer number of those operations also explains the need to re-involve the PNP – a force with a strength of 165,000. The fact is, the PDEA, with just 2,000 officers, simply doesn’t possess the manpower resources to carry out Operation Double Barrel.

Furthermore, journalists – who like to criticise the War on Drugs and throw about unsubstantiated figures for those perishing in what they describe as a “brutal campaign” – have been warmly invited to be embedded in police raids. This would allow them to witness first hand how the operations are conducted. That offer, direct from the PNP, is meant to show that the police have nothing to hide; that these operation are not being carried out by clandestine hit squads and that media scrutiny of them is welcome.

None of that, of course, will satisfy Duterte’s political opponents – particularly those in the Liberal Party which formed the country’s previous administration. Nor will it satisfy the president’s critics in the all-powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines – the de facto government of the country’s Roman Catholic Church. And nor will it satisfy the anti-Duterte media at home and abroad.

In Moscow on Monday, while addressing The International Conference of Parliamentarians Against Drugs, House Majority Leader, Rodolfo Fariñas, stated that there’s been no “order [issued by Duterte] to the police authorities to shoot unarmed drug personalities but only for the police to stand its ground when under attack or threat by an armed drug suspect, which is the generally accepted rules of engagement in any civilised society”.

That won’t assuage Duterte’s opponents either. The fact is, for all these groups the War on Drugs isn’t the real issue – it’s a useful one; it’s emotive and can be used to stir public opinion and build opposition – but it’s not what’s really behind all this.

The real problem they have is with Duterte himself. They can’t do business with him; they can’t sway him. More to the point, he’s ripping up the old order where all his detractors live. And what’s more infuriating to them is that the vast majority of Filipinos want him to do just that. And keep doing it.

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