Rodrigo Duterte, sworn in today as president of the Philippines, may face legal obstacles to his campaign promise of killing the country’s one million illegal drug users.
Duterte, nicknamed "the Punisher" by various media outlets, has called for the execution of drug traders and users throughout his political career. In an election rally in May, he issued a stark warning: “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you. I have no patience, I have no middle ground. Either you kill me or I will kill you”.
Despite Duterte’s much-repeated intention, capital punishment has been illegal in the Philippines since 2006 – but the Punisher does not have a strong track record of obeying the law.
For much of the past 30 years, Duterte has been mayor of Davao City, a conurbation in the south of the country. Despite the moratorium on capital punishment, 458 people in the city were publicly assassinated between 2007 and 2008 by a group known as the Davao Death Squad. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the Davao Death Squad is comprised of police officers and local officials who routinely kill – by publicly shooting or stabbing – street children, drug offenders, and other petty criminals.
Duterte has indicated his support for the illegal group’s efforts. stating in 2009: “Summary execution of criminals remains the most effective way to crush kidnapping and illegal drugs." He later added, “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city […] you are a legitimate target of assassination”.
HRW reports that the Davao Death Squad has become a “model for fighting crime” by officials of other Filipino cities.
Duterte clarified his position in a direct response to HRW, “To all the bleeding hearts of US-based crime watch: you want a taste of justice, my style? Come to Davao City, Philippines, and do drugs in my city. I will execute you in public”.
Duterte’s ability to rise to the highest political office in the country may have occurred, in part, due to his fiercely authoritarian approach to drugs and criminality – rather than in spite of it. He was polling at fourth place in the presidential race in March 2016, yet two months later – and after claiming he would order the killing of his own children if they used illegal drugs – he secured a decisive victory.
His ability to openly flout the law, and the seemingly widespread support for his ideals, suggests that Duterte's determination to execute every drug user in the country could well materialise into a spate of public killings.
The nation’s estimated 1.3 million “current drug users” are undeniably at risk. The Bangkok Post reports that 72 alleged drug offenders have been killed in the Philippines since Duterte won the presidential election on May 9, including one whose body was left with a sign stating "don't follow me or you'll die next". Whether Duterte reinstates capital punishment or not, the Philippines appears to be on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.