Why you should care
Because the war is not going away.
“The human-rights people will commit suicide if I finish these all,” President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly said on Thursday, waving a fat dossier filled with names of alleged drug criminals and “narco-politicians” in the Philippines. The next day, a small-town mayor who’d earlier been named as a drug suspect was shot dead by police.
Farewell, due process — and say hello to Duterte’s little friend. The new president of the Philippines has appalled many in the West with his brutal and often extrajudicial war on alleged drug dealers. But in much of Asia and the Middle East, the get-tough posture of “The Punisher” is rather more familiar. In September, Indonesia’s antidrug chief called drug dealers’ lives “meaningless” and pledged all-out war on narcotics. In October, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen vowed a crackdown on his country’s “booming” drug trade after a chat with Duterte. When Duterte visited Beijing in October, China praised his drug policies.
I want more intensive, braver, crazier and more comprehensive integrated efforts to eradicate drugs.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo
While nearby leaders distance themselves from some of Duterte’s more grisly tactics, they are taking note of his aggression in tackling a problem they find on their own shores — and of Duterte’s popularity at home. The closed-door talk at a recent regional leaders’ summit in Laos was hardly the kind of condemnation Duterte gets from the West, according to Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay. “They were praising his toughness,” Yasay said in a September television interview. “This is how they felt the war against drugs will be won.”
There is bountiful evidence to the contrary. In Mexico, President Felipe Calderón took office a decade ago and sent the military into the streets to battle drug cartels. The homicide rate spiked, and still the drugs continue to flow. In Thailand, cited as a Duterte model, a 2003 crackdown on the methamphetamine trade included hundreds of apparent extrajudicial killings, according to Human Rights Watch. The nation’s prisons remain severely overcrowded, and drug use is rampant. Both Mexico and Thailand now are discussing scaling back punitive drug laws.
Indeed, a divide in regional approaches to drugs is widening. At an April U.N. summit, for instance, the global community seemed to be inching toward de-escalation, with Western nations decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana while emphasizing treatment over punishment for addicts of harder stuff. But amid the diplomatese, a schism was apparent. “When you looked at the debates, you could see a growing division between countries in the world around what kind of approach should be taken to drugs — and perhaps most divisive was on the death penalty,” says Gloria Lai, senior policy officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium. “Europe and Latin America called for the death penalty to be abolished for drugs. Then a small group from Asia and the Middle East made a stand and said they had a right. It was because of the principles of sovereignty. It was for state governments themselves to decide.”
Indonesia, for one, is following the Philippines’ lead. Mild-mannered President Joko Widodo shocked many last year when he brought back executions for drug offenders. He claims 40 to 50 young Indonesians die each day from drugs, a figure called into doubt by academics. Early this year — before Duterte was elected — Widodo declared: “I want more intensive, braver, crazier and more comprehensive integrated efforts to eradicate drugs.” Widodo and Duterte are on good terms, and when they met, Duterte said he would not interfere in Indonesia’s planned execution of a Filipino drug dealer. Widodo’s drug czar, Budi Waseso, lauds Duterteism and says he would appreciate a shoot-to-kill policy himself. (Waseso also has proposed a crocodile-filled moat to surround prisons, because crocs can’t be bribed like human guards.) While extrajudicial killings are not proliferating in Indonesia, the international bromance is “disturbing,” says Ricky Gunawan, an Indonesia-based human-rights lawyer, “because it only strengthens the false positive sense that punitive approaches to drugs will solve drug problems.”
But crackdowns often are good politics. A recent poll showed 76 percent of the Philippines satisfied with Duterte, with 11 percent dissatisfied. Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, says public approval comes from desperation. The Philippines’ slow-moving and corrupt justice system fosters acceptance of extrajudicial killing “among Filipinos who sense that government and the judicial system [are] part of the problem, not the solution,” he says.
Elsewhere, the killings mostly occur within the system. Amnesty International recorded more executions in 2015 than in any year since 1989, many for drug-related offenses, and the figures do not include what is assumed to be thousands more in secretive China. Many of the strictest societies are in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, where nearly half of all recent executions were for drug crimes. Nevertheless, the region does not embrace Duterte’s brand of authority. James Dorsey, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, notes there are no rampant extrajudicial killings in the Middle East, and the leader known as Duterte Harry stands out because he targets users as well as dealers. “You can question how much due process and rule of law there is in Middle Eastern countries,” Dorsey says, “but there’s certainly more than there is in the Philippines.”