By Karina Lagdameo

President Duterte’s war on drugs is just that—a war and deadly.

For over a year now, every day brings news of killings in the streets of the capital and in other parts of the archipelago. The pattern is chillingly the same. Police conducts an anti-drug operation and shoots would-be drug pusher or addict dead because “nanlaban ang suspect” (the suspect shot back). Or, police, in the dead of night, enters homes looking for said suspect and shoots sleeping suspect. A gun, cartridges, packets of shabu (slang term for the drug methamphetamine) and drug paraphernalia is taken as evidence that the police shot in self-defence. These invariably happen in the dead of night and more often than not, there is no CCTV to shed light on what truly transpired. In its wake, the PNP (Philippine National Police)-led war has unleashed a grisly string of unsolved killings as masked gunmen (or gunwomen) riding on motorcycles shoot and kill their targets right on the streets, in broad daylight and, in plain view of other people.

In the early days, bodies would be found wrapped in packing tape with placards that read: Drug Pusher. Huwag tularan. (Drug pusher. Don’t imitate.) As part of the war on drugs, an operation was launched, called O-plan Tokhang, where policemen knock on doors and invite the drug suspect to surrender, attend a lecture on drug abuse and enter a rehabilitation program. Many drug users and small time drug pushers surrendered for fear of being one of the rising statistics of the dead. But even surrenderees were not safe, with incidents of surrenderees who have returned home being killed by policemen. Ascertaining what truly happened has come down to a he-said, she-said scenario, with cases where witness accounts contradicted police reports.

During what has been hailed as the bloodiest night ever, anti-drug squads killed 32 people in 24 hours. The raid was part of a one time, big time operation where 57 people were killed in three days.

“That’s good,” Duterte told a group of anti-crime volunteers, referring to one of the raids. “If we can only kill 32 everyday, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country,” said Duterte, adding a call for a probe of human rights advocates he claimed were trying to obstruct justice.

The war takes place in the slums and the poorest areas of cities and barangays, leading some commentators and critics to conclude that the war on drugs is a war on the poor, a social cleansing to rid Philippine society of its unwanted dregs. Most victims are small-time users and pushers, while the masterminds behind the lucrative drug trade are largely unknown and at large.

The drug war’s exact death toll is hotly disputed. Statistics vary. Some sources place it at 3,400 while other sources cite the death toll due to drug-related killings to have reached as high as 13,000+ to date since President Duterte took office in mid- 2016.

The war on drugs has polarized Filipinos, so much so that on social media, friends argue and fight to the point of breaking off friendships with those who don’t share their point of view. Others simply remain silent to “keep the peace”. The rise of fake news and disinformation circulating in social media and the distrust of reportage coming out of established media seen to be biased in favour or against the current administration and its policies adds to the confusion and a pervading sense of chaos.

While the majority agree that the drug menace plaguing the country needs to be urgently addressed, the President’s war on drugs and how it is being waged continues to raise controversy and divisiveness.

His supporters, specially the Duterte diehards, (alluding to the 13 million who voted for him in the hope for real change so badly needed and wanted) welcome and passionately defend his strong-arm tactics. Drug addicts are rapists and criminals; they had it coming to them. Getting rid of them makes our streets safe and secure for law abiding citizens. They fought back so the police are justified in killing them. Society is better off without them. These addicts are hopeless cases, they can never be rehabilitated and the high cost of trying isn’t worth it; the money can be well spent elsewhere. Any person, institution or social group who raises their voice or question the administration’s policy is seen as a detractor. Criticism, bashing and bullying on social media of those who question the administration is a daily affair, with some netizens receiving death threats in an attempt to silence their voices. They applaud Duterte’s brash tone and manner, admire his penchant for threatening and maligning his “detractors” which include Presidents, Prime Ministers and International Authorities like the UN and, mimic their idol.

On the other hand, those in favour of the rule of law and of upholding basic human rights enshrined in the constitution and in the fabric of democracy itself have raised their voices in alarm and concern. His war on drugs is decried as state sanctioned executions, unconstitutional, a form of state sponsored terrorism as demonstrated by the actions of the PNP and by the pronouncements of the President who blatantly encourages the police and gives them his full support in his many public speeches.

Despite the growing voices of dissent, the President has vowed that the war on drugs will continue. The scourge of drugs is a social disease that must be stamped out at all costs as peace and order is what is needed for the country’s progress. This is what he firmly believes in. Against this backdrop, the Duterte Administration and its allies in Congress have stepped up its efforts to contain opposition even within government bodies, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), in particular.

A constitutional body created and enshrined in the Constitution and mandated to investigate human rights abuses, the CHR’s dogged investigations into the drug-related killings has irked President Duterte to no end. At one point, he declared that he wanted to abolish the body, a move not legally possible. The latest attempt to get the CHR to toe the line was the vote by the Supermajority in Congress who have pledged to support Duterte’s programs and policies to allot the CHR a measly PHP1000 (equivalent to €16.45 or US$19.65.) in the 2017 budget. On the other hand, fresh funds to support Operation Tokhang was included.

Seen by many as a move to compel the current Commissioner to resign and for the CHR to refocus their efforts elsewhere, the move raised a hue and a cry from many Filipinos, even from those who have remained silent and on the side lines. This came on the heels of the cold-blooded killing of a helpless teenager by policemen which was caught on CCTV and aired on national media. The image of 17 year old Kian Loyd delos Santos, cowering in fetal position in a dark corner, pleading for his life while policemen showered bullets, confirmed suspicions of human rights abuses in this ongoing war.

Mothers voiced fears for their children who could be summarily executed just like Kian, just like that. On Facebook, millennials expressed their revulsion, how they were feeling sick in the stomach with all these killings. Some relatives of the slain related how the CHR helped them in their quest to find justice for their loved ones.

The recent events pushed the subject of human rights into the limelight, and in particular, the right to life and due process. Support for the beleaguered Commission came from many quarters, with ordinary Filipinos pledging donations so that the CHR could continue its mission. It gave the CHR an opportunity to explain what its role is, to reiterate its commitment to help uphold basic human rights, to investigate abuse of power and recommend policies to curb future recurrences, to assist those whose rights have been trampled on find justice while upholding due recourse to law, and to show the world that, for Filipinos, the right to life truly matters and the Philippines will continue to uphold and honor its commitment to international human rights treaties.

It could be that all this brouhaha of allotting $1 to the CHR budget was a just a tactic to browbeat the Commission into toeing the line. Because, after all was said and done, the legislative body in recent days reinstated a budget for the CHR. But, it could also be that the strong support for the CHR among ordinary citizens was a factor in this turn of events.

It would also seem that the bullying and coercive tactics of this Administration may have boomeranged. Some among those who voted for Duterte and still support him are expressing their fears and doubts about the EJKS. There is a growing realization that strong arm tactics and a dictatorial style of leadership may not necessarily be good for the country.

September 21, 2017, the 45th Anniversary of the Declaration of Martial Law by the late Dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, was marked by a nationwide protest against tyranny. For the first time in a long while, diverse forces came together. Rallies were held in the capital and cities nationwide, organized by different social and political groups, NGOs, citizens groups. While they come from diverse persuasions and different sectors, the main sentiment was a joint expression against dictatorship, against human rights abuses, against a future imposition of martial law nationwide. And, as voiced by the convenors, most especially, it was a call to end extra judicial killings and the seeming lack of respect for human life and for law.

Could it be that the tide is slowly turning?