The long anti-drug battle in the Philippines | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 29, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:52 AM, August 29, 2017

The long anti-drug battle in the Philippines

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The Philippines legislature, in March 2017, reinforced the death penalty for drug offenders, despite resistance from the countries and communities in the Western hemisphere. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), UN, US, UK, Australia, EU, and the Roman Catholic Church etc. have expressed their concern about President Duterte's decisive policy against drug criminals.

After assuming office, President Rodrigo Duterte launched his anti-drugs campaign in June 2016. Law enforcement agencies, including the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the Philippine National Police (PNP) Anti-Illegal Drugs Group (AIDG), and local police forces have adopted “a zero-tolerance” campaign against illicit drugs. As a result, 6,000 drug dealers have been gunned down, one third by law enforcement agencies and the rest by unknown assailants.

A survey commissioned by the Dangerous Drug Board (DDB) in 2016 indicated that there are 1.8 million drug addicts in the Philippines, which is 1.8 percent of the total population. Similar to the massive Yaba use in Bangladesh, Shabu has emerged as the most used drug there in recent years. Marijuana and ecstasy are the other drugs used, along with some use of cocaine.

Conflicting with the Filipino approach, the President of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Werner Sipp, made a humanitarian appeal once in August 2016, and then again in April 2017. In line with the lenient attitude pursued by Australia, Canada, UK and US, Werner appealed to state parties to abolish the death penalty on drug-related offences and mooted the slogan “treatment not punishment”. This call is in sharp contrast to the current stringent policy pursued by the Philippines government.

The history of anti-narcotics struggle in the Philippines goes back to the British imperial drug trade in the late 19th century. With the globalisation of drug trade by the British government in India, a massive drug problem spread among the local population by the end of the Spanish colonial rule in 1898. To expedite its anti-drug stance, the US government, following the invasion of the island country, eventually set up an Opium Commission to counteract the pro-revenue findings of the British Royal Commission (BRC) on Opium of 1893.

The Philippines Opium Commission (POC) consisted of two medical experts and the islands' principal bishop, H Brent. The Committee members visited Southeast Asian countries including China, Burma and Japan for tracing evidences on drug abuse and submitted their undisputed report in June 1904. It rejected the findings of the BRC and endorsed the “gravest” results of opium use in the investigated areas. The POC recommended strict prohibition on the import, sale and use of opium.

The POC looked at the opium problem largely the way the world observes it today. Contrasting the BRC, which concluded that total prohibition was entirely beyond the power of the government, the POC recommended prohibition of opium, except for medical purposes. In defence of the colonial opium trade, the BRC was the conclusive official act of the British imperial government. However, the latter commission urged the government “to punish and, if necessary to remove from the Islands, incorrigible offenders.” In line with that approach, the US Congress banned opium trade in the Philippines by the middle of 1905, and vowed to suppress the problem in its single colony by March 1908.

The POC report laid the groundwork for future anti-drug policies throughout the world. It granted the government an opportunity to proclaim the evils connected with the flow of opium and provided justification for US resistance to a trade from which the government of British India was deriving great material benefits. Backed by the US State Department, the missionaries in China distributed the translated version of the POC report throughout the country. This report enlivened the hopes and aspirations of the Chinese people, and they were able to take part in an organised international struggle against the colonial opium trade in South Asia.

Bishop H Brent's role and the initiative taken by the US government provided an impetus to international measures concerning the drug trade. To create a concerted effort in accordance with the Philippines report, Bishop Brent in a personal letter to President Theodore Roosevelt in July 1906, wrote: “my experience on the Philippine opium investigating committee leads me to believe that the problem is of sufficient merit to warrant an endeavour to secure international action.” President Roosevelt endorsed Brent's anti-opium stand, and instructed the State Department in September 1906 to raise the issue with the British government.

In October 1906, the US Ambassador Reid asked the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, about the prospect of a joint commission to investigate the consequences of opium trade and its use in the Asia-Pacific region. The British government, which had a completely different position on the issue, termed the US move as an “interference” that would involve a “great sacrifice” of Indian drug revenue. Nevertheless, the anti-opium pressure and agitation in the UK, US, India, Burma, Sri Lanka and China significantly influenced the adoption of the Geneva Convention in 1925.

Within six decades of the global banning of narcotics, the situation worsened again with the resurgence of drug trade across the globe at the turn of the 1980s. As part of its anti-narcotics drive, the Office of the Filipino President has publicly identified more than 170 kingpins, including politicians, judges, mayors, congressmen, and police officers. In 2016, PDEA reported the arrest of 156 public officials for their connections with drug trafficking.

However, instead of widespread extra-judicial killing of drug peddlers, the Philippines government may devote itself to building the capacity of the judiciary along with appropriate anti-narcotics laws and find some kind of solution under the rule of law. Otherwise, targeted killings eventually might lead to rampant killings by corrupt members of law enforcement agencies.


M Emdadul Haq is author of the book Drugs in South Asia: from the opium trade to the present day (Palgrave Macmillan, UK & St Martin's Press, USA).


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