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Philippines Supreme Court Justice Says Duterte’s Drug War Targets “Small-Time Peddlers”, Ignores “Drug Lords”

As Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte orders police to resume their involvement in the country’s drug war, a prominent Supreme Court justice has claimed that the approach is targeting low-level offenders.

On December 5, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged the government to explain why the "flagship project of the President is concentrated on going after the small-time peddlers [rather than] the big-time drug lords”, and added that “if you stop the supply then there is no more demand".

Jose Calida, the solicitor general, claimed that high-level traffickers were Chinese, rather than Filipino, and that "big-time Chinese drug lords are outside of our jurisdiction … in China". When pressed on the government’s mass killing of people for alleged drug use, Calida put forward unfounded claims that many people who use drugs are inherently dangerous:

"An addict does not act normally. One who has been sniffing shabu [methamphetamine] for quite some time, there's an effect on the brain, your honour. Especially after a drug session, a drug addict is actually insane your honour. So he's not afraid of policemen, he's not afraid of killing or dying for that matter … and that's why we have these heinous crimes, children being raped, and tortured, these devilish actuations of these drug addicts, your honour. So we cannot equate them with a rational person."

Calida added that this justifies the police killing people for suspected drug use, if a police officer “believes his life is at stake”.

This stigmatisation of people for drug use is the foundation of the Philippines war on drugs, which has been waged since President Duterte rose to power in July 2016. Since then, Duterte has presided over the mass slaughter of thousands of people for alleged drug offences, and has likened himself to Adolf Hitler, once stating “if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Human Rights Watch and other NGOs estimate that as many as 12,000 people may have been killed under the guise of drug policy under Duterte's administration. As Antonia Carpio alluded to, poor people have suffered the most from the drug war, as authorities most often target people in slums and other impoverished areas.

Regardless of such criticism, the government is continuing to push forward in its repressive drugs approach. On the same day as Carpio’s criticism, President Duterte ordered police to resume their involvement in anti-drug operations, following their forced withdrawal from this activity in October. NGOs have responded to this development with ire.

“Since the police were withdrawn from anti-drug operations in October, there has been a marked decline in the number of deaths resulting from these operations. We can only expect that to reverse, as the police have the opportunity to pick up where they left off and resume their indiscriminate killing with impunity”, said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia and the Pacific Director.

“In returning police to his anti-drug operations yet again, President Duterte has consigned the poorest and most marginalised people in the Philippines to another catastrophic wave of violence, misery and bloodshed”, Gomez added.

Indeed, there has been no suggestion that the government will realign its drug war to target high-level drug trafficking groups. Rather, the return of the police to counter-narcotic operations seems likely to worsen the harms felt by poor people – including those who use and sell drugs, and those who happen to live in areas being targeted by authorities.

In recent months, Philippines authorities have been particularly brazen about the drug war’s targeting of poor people. As TalkingDrugs reported in August, police began performing door-to-door drug testing in poor neighbourhoods, adding people’s names to a list if they tested positive for drug use. On November 30, Filipino news agency Rappler revealed that this testing was undertaken with the goal of clearing people out of slums, including by killing people for simply failing drug tests.

As criticism from a senior legal Filipino figure seems to have little effect on the continuation of the country’s drug war, it seems likely that the country’s mass human rights abuses will persist unabated too.

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