Shifting Focus to the Philippines

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In the age of nonstop news and fully loaded Twitter rants, things can get lost in the shuffle. News organizations are scrambling to put information out first, reporters are searching for a scoop, and pundits are clamoring for a fresh hot take that fits their voice and raises their visibility.

Right now, in the United States, election coverage is king. Exaggerated though it may seem, this presidential political obsession is par for the course every four years, and feels even more accentuated this time around with the vast caricatures painted of the two major party candidates.

With the focus so squarely rooted in domestic politics, major global news stories tend to slip through the cracks—tensions continue to escalate between India and Pakistan in Kashmir; living conditions remain dire for refugees struggling to survive in Syria; and a violent, extrajudicial drug war is currently being waged in the Philippines.

That’s not to say media outlets haven’t covered these stories—these in-depth pieces will prove it—but naturally these organizations play to their audiences. And let’s face it: Americans consume election coverage and punditry like it was just declared fat-free with zero calories.

Sponging up election coverage is not something Americans should collectively feel badly about—after all, it is the race for the most important office on Earth and the head of our governmental system and military. However, a failure to properly inform the public on global events is also a failure to place matters into a context of international phenomenon, to realize that as big as the United States is, there’s an even bigger, more brutal world outside of it.

The events in the Philippines are a perfect example of this. Since winning the country’s presidential election in a landslide back in June, Rodrigo Duterte has implemented a violent no-tolerance policy toward all drug-related crime and activity. That’s not just traffickers and dealers, but also users and addicts. He encourages citizens to commit heinous acts, to murder suspected addicts so that their families don’t have to do it themselves.

Duterte plays the role of the strongman, the man who promises to eliminate all drug use and crime if it’s the last thing he does, all in the name of the safety and well-being of his countrymen. Aside from the egregious human rights violations occurring daily, there’s another key issue—meeting drug activity with violence begets more violence. Just ask the United States, who’s drug war has been bemoaned as a failure (an epic fail, according to Jay Z).

So where is the context to explain this type of extrajudicial activity against drugs? BTRtoday sat down with Marie Nougier, senior research and communications officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), to gain a better perspective on the Philippine drug war and its implications, both in the country and abroad.

BTRtoday (BTR): So what has Duterte been doing since becoming president of the Philippines?

Marie Nougier (MN): What he’s been doing since he got elected, and even before during his presidential campaign, was to launch a real war on drugs and war on crime. By doing so, he’s actually been asking the police, but also the general public, to start killing anybody that people suspect are involved in the drug trade.

This has led to a lot of killing. Around 2,000 people have been killed, there’s also been about 5,000 incarcerated and around 500,000 people who have surrendered themselves to the police because they feared for their own safety. And now, we’re in a situation where people die everyday.

BTR: How bad was the drug problem in the Philippines before all this?

MN: Drug use is an issue in the Philippines. In terms of drug use, in 2012 the UN said that the Philippines had the highest trace of methamphetamine use in East Asia. Cannabis use is also very high. There’s also some production of cannabis and methamphetamine in the country, mostly to feed the national market. Because of the geographical location of the Philippines, there is some trafficking going on as well.

“When you talk about stopping Duterte from killing people, they say ‘who are you? We want this, Duterte is saving us. He’s creating a safer world.’ It is shocking that people do not realize how long term the consequences are going to be.” – Marie Nougier

However, the current policy of war on drugs will not solve the problem; it will probably make it worse. Duterte is actually going to make this problem worse in terms of human rights, in terms of violence, in terms of security.

BTR: How so? What sort of human rights does this type of extrajudicial policy step on?

MN: The first infringement is the violation of the right to life. People are just being killed in the street, many of them probably don’t have any involvement in the drug trade in the first place. Another threat is to the right to help. People who use drugs–who probably need some support in terms of treatment or harm reduction–will not be able to access these anymore because they’re so afraid of being killed outside. The right of due process, the right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence, all of these are being violated with what’s going on in the Philippines.

BTR: How does this kind of harsh policy affect the way people of a certain country or community view drugs?

MN: This kind of policy has a long term effect on how people view drugs. In a lot of countries in Asia, for example, drugs are really considered an evil, a social evil that needs to be eradicated at all costs. Putting this in the minds of people over and over again has a huge impact on how people are going to be stigmatized and discriminated against throughout their lives.

BTR: Despite his heinous policies, Duterte is extremely popular in the Philippines. How has he maintained this level of support?

MN: Duterte has this way of adopting a very paternalistic approach to talking about the issue of drugs and talking to people in general. This also comes from Duterte’s history—he was a mayor in a city called Davao for 22 years, so he’s one of the longest standing mayors in the history of the country. In Davao he’s known to have implemented a similar kind of war on crime approach. He put together vigilante forces as well, and they supposedly eradicated all crime. He’s known for cleaning up the streets, for giving people a feeling of security, and for eradicating crime.

There’s no data, for now, that shows that this is actually happening in the Philippines. He’s claiming that crime has gone down, but we have no data that shows that this is true. But he’s showing this message that the Philippines and the Filipino people are in need of this kind of reassurance and this kind of person that says “I am sorting out your problems.” Your problems of poverty, your societal problems, your access to employment, your access to the safer place… He’s responding to that demand from the Filipino population, and it’s probably one of the factors why he’s still so popular despite all the horrendous stuff that he’s doing.

BTR: What’s your reaction to the amount of support Duterte still has among his countrymen?

MN: It’s very scary. To me, it’s absolutely shocking. When you talk about stopping Duterte from killing people, they say “who are you? We want this, Duterte is saving us. He’s creating a safer world.” It is shocking that people do not realize how long term the consequences are going to be. We all know the impact that availability of weapons and promoting violence has on countries. The U.S. is an example, Mexico is an example. But people don’t necessarily realize what this is going to mean long term.

BTR: Does that make it harder to step in and change people’s minds in terms of Duterte and his harsh violence?

MN: It’s very difficult to intervene. We’ve had the same issue with the death penalty in Indonesia, where more than 50 percent of the population is in favor of the death penalty for drug offenders. So you see the government has a justification in a way for their harmful policies that completely go against human rights. But I think it’s going to take a lot of time to change the minds of the population considering how popular these policies are. And this is going to require a lot of work from local activists to really build the capacity of people to understand why these measures are harmful.

To listen to BTRtoday’s complete interview series with Marie Nougier, check out the Daily Beat dated August 29-September 2.