By Geoffrey Hartman —
The Philippine National Police (PNP) is back in action in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, a little over a month after the president ordered the police to stand down. Police chief Ronald dela Rosa on March 6 announced that the PNP has “reloaded” and is ready to rejoin the drug war, but said he hoped the renewed campaign—which has killed over 7,000 people so far—would be “less bloody.”
The relaunch follows a period of mounting setbacks and challenges to Duterte’s war on drugs. The president removed the police from counternarcotics operations on January 29 following allegations that PNP officers kidnapped and murdered a South Korean businessman in the PNP’s Manila headquarters while extorting ransom money from his widow. Duterte responded angrily to the alleged incident, declaring the police “corrupt to the core” and halting all antidrug operations until the force was cleansed of corruption.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines weighed in soon after, issuing a pastoral letter on February 5—read aloud at churches across the country—that denounced the “reign of terror” caused by the drug war and rejected killing as a solution to illegal drug trafficking. A church-endorsed march followed on February 18, with thousands of Philippine Catholics taking to the streets of Manila to protest extrajudicial killings and plans to reinstate the death penalty for drug offenses.
The political opposition to Duterte got a boost on February 20, when a retired policeman testified before the Senate that he had been a member of an alleged “death squad” operating under the personal orders of Duterte while he was mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines. Senator Leila de Lima—a former justice secretary and perhaps the most outspoken critic of the drug war—used the testimony to blast Duterte and refocus attention on a Senate inquiry into Duterte’s alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings while mayor.
Following a month of domestic rancor, Duterte began March facing renewed international criticism of the drug war. Human Rights Watch released an investigative report on March 2 that claimed that the PNP had been acting with impunity in the drug war, repeatedly carrying out extrajudicial killings and planting evidence to falsely claim self-defense. The U.S. State Department on March 3 also criticized the sharp increase in extrajudicial killings in its annual human rights report, calling them the chief human rights concern in the Philippines.
With the police discredited and a growing chorus of critics calling for change, there was some hope that Duterte might use the pause in the war on drugs to reexamine the campaign and rein in some of its worst excesses. That is still possible, with dela Rosa claiming that the renewed drug war will have “built-in systems that guarantee full accountability and instill internal discipline” among the police. The PNP also says that members of its reorganized lead counternarcotics unit will be subject to a rigid screening process to ensure only high-quality officers are allowed in.
These changes, if effectively implemented, would be a step in the right direction and may prevent future abuses like the South Korean businessman killing that so incensed Duterte. However, there is little to suggest that the PNP will alter its broader approach to the drug war, including the street-level tactics that have left over 2,500 dead in police operations. Nor is there any indication that the PNP will more seriously investigate the killings by unknown vigilantes that have left more than 3,500 dead and continued even during the pause in the drug war.
There are also no signs that growing criticism has convinced Duterte to reexamine or adopt a more restrained approach to his signature drug war. The government responded to the bishop’s pastoral letter by calling the church leaders “out of touch” and Duterte said there would be no let-up in the campaign. The response to reinvigorated opposition in the Senate was more dramatic, with Senator de Lima arrested on drug charges on February 24, several of her allies losing their leadership positions on February 27, and her inquiry into Duterte’s past shut down on March 6. De Lima has vowed to fight on from her jail cell, but political opposition to Duterte’s drug war in the Senate has likely been cowed for the time being.
Given the lack of detail from the PNP on how it plans to wage a “less bloody” war on drugs and the apparent lack of interest from Duterte in modifying the drug war to respond to critics of its extrajudicial killings, it is likely that the renewed drug war will proceed largely as it did before. Both Duterte and dela Rosa continue to speak of the drug war in life-or-death terms, and neither seems opposed to continued violence in what they claim is a struggle to save their country.
If the Philippine drug war does continue along its previous path, foreign government partners of the Philippines will almost certainly face growing calls to curtail their training and assistance to the PNP due to human rights concerns. These calls could also spread to other Philippine security services, most notably the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which were given a greater support role in the drug war during the PNP’s forced absence. Pressure to disassociate from the Philippines could even spread beyond security cooperation, as international views of the Philippines continue to worsen due to a constant drumbeat of violence.
These outcomes are not inevitable, and the Philippine government can still prevent them by taking its critics seriously and demonstrating a real commitment to ending extrajudicial killings and waging its antidrug campaign in a transparent and responsible fashion. The signs that this will happen may be few, but Philippine friends and partners around the globe can still hope that the PNP has used its sabbatical wisely and that the renewed drug war will not be just more of the same.
Mr. Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.