Duterte and the War on Drugs - Changing the Rule of Law

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Written By: Lianne Chia


The war on drugs have been prevalent in the Philippines since 2016 and has been the cornerstone of Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign as the President of the Philippines. To prevent the further growth of the country’s illegal drug trade and from becoming a “narco-state”, Duterte has exercised unorthodox methods that have gone against the rule of law. His unorthodox methods were first seen through the Davao Death Squad, which has supposedly conducted summary executions of alleged criminals, drug dealers and even street children.[1] He further applies this practice during his Presidency through the extrajudicial killings in combatting the war on drugs. The illegal drug trade has been extremely pervasive in the Filipino community and has resulted in many implications, most prominently, corruption. In 2016, Duterte released a list of high-ranking officials who were acting as protectors for drug syndicates,[2] showing the great impact the illegal drug trade has had on the Philippines through the years. Insofar as there exist a pressing need for the eradication of the illegal drug trade, Duterte, acting as the President, cannot go beyond the rule of law.

The erosion of the rule of law in the Philippines is evident in the way which Duterte has approached the war on drugs. Duterte has urged citizens to kill criminals and drug addicts,[3] resulting in numerous extrajudicial killings. This encouragement has also created a culture of fear, with many drug syndicates killing each other for their own protection against whistle-blowers. A Reuters interview with a retired Filipino police intelligence officer and another active-duty police commander reported that top-level authorities have masterminded the killings. To encourage the police force, police are paid varying amounts according to the type of drug suspect they have killed during drug raids. These drug suspects include street pushers, distributors, retailers and drug lords. The monetary awards for each killing correspond with the role each suspect play in distributing and selling drugs.[4] 97% of drug suspects were killed during these drug raids. Additionally, lists of those involved in the illegal drug trade have been drawn up without any vetting. This has invariably shown how Duterte’s encouragement has eroded the rule of law that public officials should not act without legal authority.

The Human Rights Watch have found that the police have invariably asserted self-defence claims and even planted evidence next to victims’ bodies to prove that such killings are justifiable. With such a great encouragement to kill these criminals, this has resulted in the erosion of the rule of law. These alleged criminals were not given the basic human right of defending themselves in a court of law. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has since announced a preliminary examination into the extrajudicial killings committed under Duterte’s rule. In response however, Duterte has withdrawn the Philippines from the ICC.[5] This further shows that it may well be that Duterte does not place the rule of law in his eyes – he has actively taken steps to evade any form of judicial review. It was highly likely that he would have been indicted for the extrajudicial killings should the ICC have launched a full investigation. He evades the investigation and continues with his bloody war on drugs.

Duterte has also shown that he is above the law through his challenges against the judiciary. After the Supreme Court upheld their opinion of the enactment of martial law, Duterte explicitly expressed his discontent with the outcome. He specifically stated that he would disregard the ruling of the court if they struck down the order to enact martial law. This clearly shows Duterte’s disregard for the rule of law. He failed to respect the decision of the court and their opinion on whether it would be constitutional for him to enable such law. Duterte further attacks the judiciary as he calls for the impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno. As a result of his comments on the impeachment of Chief Justice Sereno, his supporters have actively pursued impeachment charges against her. This eventually resulted in her impeachment due to her alleged failure to declare assets and liabilities. The impeached has greatly affected the perceived independence of the judiciary from the executive and the legislature. It has also resulted in judges calling for their peers to actively take steps to protect their dignity and impartiality.[6] Even though the executive and the legislature are not meant to have any influence on the judiciary, it seems that Duterte’s actions have caused judges to be wary of their decisions because of the implications that may arise if they were to be in conflict with Duterte.

The Philippines government has also continuously covered up and denied the number of people killed as a result of the war on drugs. Media outlets that publish articles covering the war on drugs have been criticized by the Philippines’ government and had the articles labelled as “fake news”. Duterte claims that the journalists are spies and denounced various media organisations. One of the most prominent media outlets, Rappler, that has been religiously covering the war on drugs, has been repressed by the Philippines government. Rappler has been known for being one of the most influential news websites in the Philippines. They have exposed Duterte on the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the President’s war on drugs. As a result of Rappler’s coverage of the war on drugs, the Philippine government views them as a threat. The Philippine government subsequently charged Rappler with tax evasion, as a means of silencing them and preventing them from exposing the deeds of the government. Additionally, the Security and Exchange Commission revoked Rappler’s operating license. The government has actively sought out other legal avenues for restricting the press. It could be said that it was still within the confines of the rule of law, but the purpose of seeking these legal avenues are contrary to what they intended. It could be argued that the charge for tax evasion was merely a cover to prevent the media outlet from further portraying the government in a bad light.

The United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an aid-giving body, was among one of the first institutions to draw attention to the erosion of the rule of law in the Philippines.[7] The MCC requires aid recipients to demonstrate a “commitment to the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights”.[8] The Philippines government withdrew their application from the second cycle of the grant because it felt that it would undermine their sovereignty. It could be argued that the Philippines government was aware of their disregard for the rule of law. The requirement to be committed to the rule of law by the MCC could be considered to be a basic requirement of any country. This is an instance where the international community has shown their concern over the rule of law in the Philippines in regard to these killings that have been reported worldwide.

Insofar as the Philippine government has blatantly disregarded the rule of law, their measures in winning the war on drugs has been effective. One could argue that it has highlighted the prevalent drug problem in the Philippines and has also massively decreased crime rates. On the other hand, one could also argue that rather than going to the root of the drug problem in the Philippines, the disregard for the rule of law uncovers more jarring issues such as the lack of checks and balances within the government itself. Perhaps the Philippines could implement and enforce stringent drug laws and gun laws to help win the war on drugs. However, it does not seem that these killings and the erosion of rule of law in the Philippines will stop with Duterte as the President.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Durham Asian Law Journal.

[1] Philippine Frontline Ministries, Inc., ‘Street Children – Living a Life of Uncertainty, Fear, and Hopelessness’, (Face the Children, 3 January 2010) <https://www.facethechildren.org/problem/articles#02> accessed on 20 March 2020. (For the definition of “Street Children”) [2] Eimor P. Santos, ‘Duterte’s drug list: What we know so far’ (CNN Philippines, 19 August 2016) <https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/08/19/President-Duterte-list-of-drug-personalities-politicians.html> accessed on 20 March 2020 [3] Guardian Staff and Agencies, ‘Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte urges people to kill drug addicts’ (The Guardian, 1 July 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/philippines-president-rodrigo-duterte-urges-people-to-kill-drug-addicts> accessed on 20 March 2020 [4] Vanda Felbab-Brown, ‘The human rights consequences of the war on drugs in the Philippines’ (Brookings, 8 August 2017) <https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-human-rights-consequences-of-the-war-on-drugs-in-the-philippines/> accessed on 20 March 2020 [5] Jason Gutierrez, ‘Philippines Officially Leaves the International Criminal Court’ (The New York Times, 17 March 2019) <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/17/world/asia/philippines-international-criminal-court.html#:~:text=MANILA%20%E2%80%94%20The%20Philippines%20officially%20withdrew,only%20permanent%20war%20crimes%20tribunal.> accessed on 20 March 2020 [6] Jessica Trisko Darden, ‘Rule of law is fading fast in the Philippines’ (AEI, 14 May 2018) <aei.org/foreign-and-defense-policy/asia/rule-of-law-is-fading-fast-in-the-philippines/> accessed 20 March 2020 [7] ibid [8] Jenny Lei Ravelo, ‘Second MCC Philippine compact under review due to rule of law, human rights concerns’ (Devex, 16 December 2016) <https://www.devex.com/news/second-mcc-philippine-compact-under-review-due-to-rule-of-law-human-rights-concerns-89328> accessed on 20 March 2020

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