Philippines’ Duterte Backpedals on Abusive ‘Drug War’

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is finally feeling the heat.

On Thursday, he buckled to growing public dismay over his murderous “war on drugs” and ordered a suspension of the Philippine National Police’s anti-drug operations. Human Rights Watch, other human rights groups, and the media have linked many of the thousands of deaths to summary executions by the police and their agents.

But instead of scrapping the program, Duterte has assigned the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to be the sole anti-drug enforcement agency and relegated the police to “forwarding of intelligence information to PDEA.” Duterte implicitly acknowledged that the decision was linked to growing domestic and international furor over the drug campaign’s horrific human toll by stating the suspension will be “better for the bleeding hearts and media.” Duterte declared a similar suspension in January, when the estimated “drug war” death toll was about 7,000, following revelations of the brutal murder of a South Korean businessman by anti-drug police. But that suspension was lifted a month later and nongovernmental organizations and media outlets estimate more than 12,000 people have been killed over the past 15 months.

What’s different this time is that Duterte’s decision appears to be a response to growing domestic outrage over the deliberate targeting of children by police on anti-drug operations. That public dismay has helped fuel a sharp slide in Duterte’s popularity ratings, which had previously shown strong public support. But the suspension may also relate to the rising international pressure, including a United Nations joint declaration issued on September 29 signed by 39 UN member countries, demanding an end to the killings.

Duterte and his government are also plainly spooked by the prospect that pursuing the “drug war” may result in the European Union withdrawing trade privileges that could cost the Philippines billions. EU European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malström warned Duterte in March that the Philippines risks losing tariff-free export of up to 6,000 products if it fails to meet certain EU human rights benchmarks. A delegation of EU parliamentarians visited the Philippines last week to convey the same message, prompting a furious and profane response from Duterte.

But if Duterte believes that declaring another suspension in police killing operations will ease pressure for a UN-led international investigation into the drug war, he should think again. His war won’t end until there is justice and accountability for its thousands of victims.