The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in May last year has since seen the Philippines’ human rights situation deteriorate. Duterte’s war on drugs has thus far claimed more than 7,000 lives, and the international community has condemned Duterte for the state-sponsored extrajudicial killings. This comes as no surprise, since Duterte was elected as a strongman to crack down on illegal drugs amid fears that the Philippines may become a narco-state. Though Duterte temporarily stalled his war on drugs in early February this year, Duterte’s anti-drug campaign has resumed, and his obsession has embroiled the country into a seemingly endless war that has no real winners.
With the growing death toll, Duterte’s administration has started facing increasing resistance from all sectors of the Filipino society. In addition, the future of the Philippines’ relations with countries such as Australia, including potential business prospects, could be jeopardised as the war on drugs fosters ambiguity about the political and economic future of the Philippines. As Duterte’s war on drugs continues, the Philippines may see a democratically elected government face impeachment, while countries such as Australia will remain dissuaded to invest in a country that is embroiled in extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop travelled to the Philippines as part of her visit to Southeast Asia from 13-17 March. Minister Bishop travelled to Mindanao to visit President Duterte in his hometown to discuss human rights, as well as education, peace and conflict initiatives in the southern Philippines. According to Bishop, her discussions in the Philippines, especially with Duterte, expressed Australian and international concerns with respect to extrajudicial killings and human rights. In an apparent move to preserve his strongman image, Duterte denied any discussions on human rights ‘because if you say that, if you utter those things in my presence, you’ll get an insult’. Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abello reinforced this by claiming ‘there was no contradiction between the Australian official and the Philippines President, just a difference in perspective’.
Since his election as president, Duterte has implemented a self-imposed six-month deadline for his war on drugs. However, he has since extended this to the end of his presidential term in 2022, due to ‘miscalculation’. Duterte is supported by his party, PDP-Laban, which enjoys a supermajority in Congress, and has thus been able to invest significant, unopposed political capital into the war on drugs. This has seen the Philippines’ House of Representatives approve House Bill 4727, a bill to reimpose the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Following this vote, House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas purged those who opposed the death penalty bill, with more expected in May. Despite widespread support, cracks are beginning to form within the Philippine political landscape, which threaten the country’s domestic stability and thus the future prospects for its international relations.
The past couple of months have witnessed an increasing resistance against Duterte’s war on drugs. Senator Leila de Lima, a former human rights commissioner who opened an inquiry into the vigilante death squads and one of Duterte’s most vocal critics, was arrested in February for her alleged involvement orchestrating a drug-trafficking ring during her time as Justice Secretary from 2010-2015. The arrest of Senator de Lima ignited protests on the anniversary of the Philippines EDSA revolution, which marked the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Following this in March, Philippine opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano filed an impeachment complaint against Duterte, calling for his removal due to the violation of the rule of the law, corruption, bribery and undeclared bank accounts amounting to roughly ₱2.2 billion (AUD $57.5 million dollars). Vice President Leni Robredo has also publicly slammed Duterte with a video message during the 60th annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs held in Vienna, which highlighted the human rights abuses and cited the death of over 7,000 people.
As the war on drugs continues and the Philippines’ political landscape becomes increasingly volatile, the country also runs the risk of losing millions of dollars in aid and investment. During the sidelines of the 15th Meeting of the ASEAN Senior Officials/Ministers Responsible for Information from 22-23 March, Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno warned that ‘the Philippines is poised to lose various trade agreements with the international community amid allegations of state-sponsored extrajudicial killings and human rights violation’. This is unsurprising, since the Philippines failed to secure Millennium Challenge Corp funding, not to mention the Obama administration’s halt of sales of 26,000 rifles to the Philippines due to concerns over human rights violations.
The Philippines’ future under Duterte remains ambiguous, and the war on drugs and the increasing death toll will likely dissuade future investors. As Julie Bishop noted in Manila, Australia and the Philippines remain constructive partners committed to achieving peace, stability and prosperity for each other and the region. Australia is undoubtedly a reliable and committed development partner with the Philippines. As such, if the Philippines hopes to maintain its economic development and relationships with international partners, it is in its national interest to contextualise the future of its war on drugs within its broader foreign policy strategy.
Reginald Ramos is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.