As more than 5000 alleged drug dealers have been killed in the Philippines in under a year, mostly from the lower classes, one has to wonder if President Roberto Duterte’s bloody campaign is truly a war on drugs or rather, a war on the poor? During a recent podium discussion about the human rights violations in the Philippines, ambassador Melita Sta Maria-Thomeczek and human rights activist Dr. Nymia Pimentel weighed in on the issue.

On July 1 2016, Rodrigo Duterte took an oath to office, becoming the 16th president of the Philippines. Just six months later, over 4,000 people had already been killed in drug related deaths under his enforcement. Duterte ran his campaign based on a promise to eradicate the country of its illegal drug problem in what he referred to as a war on drugs, arguing it to be the main cause of degradation in the country and warning that it would be a brutal effort. Since his election, he had urged his citizens to  “kill drug dealers” themselves, telling the police enforcement that he would support them in doing so as well.

Human Rights Matter recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the Joint Conference of Church (GKKE) about this ‘war on drugs’ and other human rights violations in the country. Panelist and director of the human rights organization Philrights, Dr. Nymia Pimentel,  discussed the national focus on the war on drugs–a war which is in fact mainly affecting the middle and lower classes in what she referred to as a war on the poor. She urged us to question this steadfast dedication to this ‘war on drugs’ that Duterte’s administration has continued to pursue and raised questions relating to the pervasiveness of the issue as well as the mechanisms used in tackling it. Questions arose surrounding the justifications for approaching the problem as a criminality issue rather than a public health issue, as this would alter the measures taken to fight it. Further, there have been claims that the government has failed to provide data and facts to back up their alarming claims regarding the high prevalence of drugs in the nation and has utilized the judiciary branch in order to falsify information being put out to the public.

Many continue to criticize Duterte and his administration for not choosing to focus on the issue of poverty directly and perhaps preventing a ‘drug problem’ in that manner, thus eliminating the root of the issue in the first place. Dr. Barbel Kofler, Commissioner of the Federal Government for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, elaborated on this when she stated; “You cannot fight poverty if you don’t focus on human rights.” In addition to free speech violations through the media and the repression of protests and freedom of press, Duterte himself has declared in official statements released to the nation; “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.” In this manner, Duterte’s rhetoric is very similar to that of United State’s President Trump, in the same careless and dangerous nature in which he speaks–using language that the Philippine ambassador to Germany dismissed as purely ‘talk’ and nothing to take seriously. Yet there is no doubt that since the start of Duterte’s presidency, there has been a distressing increase in police brutality cases and police killings across the nation, particularly directed at the poor. In this manner, his rhetoric has allowed for, and even encouraged, the violence the country is currently witnessing. Law enforcement officers know that they will not be charged and prosecuted for their crimes, thus allowing for violent and illegal criminalization of innocent citizens. Other human rights violations include the proposed reinstatement of the death penalty–which goes directly against the the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the abolishment of the death penalty, which the nation previously ratified in 2007. With such serious violations, the international human rights community cannot help but be alarmed at the projected course the Philippines seems to be heading in. Thus, Human Rights Matter stands in solidarity with the human rights defenders facing prosecution at the hands of Duterte’s administration and call for continued pressure on the Philippine government from the international community to prevent the atrocities taking place.

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