by Johsa Manzanilla (Published in Pilipino Express December 1-15)
A couple weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed
that he brought up human rights and extrajudicial killings in a
discussion with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his war on
drugs. Trudeau claimed Duterte was “receptive to [his] comments, and
[that] it was … a cordial and positive exchange.” When Duterte was asked
at a news conference about how he responded, he stated it was a
“personal and official insult” and that he “only answer[s] to the
Filipino… not… to any other bullshit, especially [from] foreigners.”
It is interesting to see Duterte lash out at Trudeau, disregarding
his comments as coming from a “foreign” perspective, given that there is
a critical perspective and analysis amongst Filipinos of the
President’s policy to addressing drug abuse in the country. These
include Filipinos living on the Philippine islands as well as abroad.
While Duterte was elected by a landslide in June 2016 – 6.6 million more
than the candidate who came in second – recent polls are suggesting
that his approval rate is dropping. It is worth mentioning that this
drop has been in poor, urban areas, where many residents have become
part of the statistic of over 7,000 individuals killed for allegedly
being drug dealers or users. This is despite them making up a large part
of Duterte’s support base during last year’s campaign.
Illegal drug abuse has become a widespread and pervasive public
health issue in the Philippines. There has been much debate around a
comprehensive strategy and actionable solutions to address the issue. On
one hand is prevention and treatment – on the other, sanctioned
elimination by murder. While the second method seems straightforward –
eliminating the problem by literally terminating the lives of people who
are allegedly currently involved, there is no evidence that would
suggest that this would lead to the complete eradication of addiction
and criminality related to illegal substances.
Based on the Philippine government’s Drug Dependency Examination,
there are a number of levels or categories of “drug user,” depending on
one’s level of drug use: experimenter, social recreational user,
habitual user, drug abuser, and drug dependent. While experimenters,
social recreational users and habitual users can be treated in
outpatient centres, drug abusers and drug dependents have developed a
syndrome in that they lose control over their use and their mental
processes are affected. This is why for drug dependents, also referred
to as “addicts,” basic needs become re-ordered – where drugs supersede
food, shelter, clothing and healthy relationships. Drug addiction is a
disease that is misunderstood. While treatable, treatment acknowledges a
cycle of repeated relapse – interventions are not a one-time thing, but
require a long-term, holistic approach, such as in the treatment of
other chronic diseases.
It is important to ask the questions that look at the core of the
problem – to find the heart of the beast, instead of just chopping off
parts of it only to have them spontaneously regenerate. What are the
root causes? What are the underlying factors? Why are people buying and
using drugs? Why is there a demand? And what is the most effective way
of stopping the demand?
In the slums of the Philippines, street children sniff a solvent
called “rugby” in plastic bags to alleviate their hunger pangs. Others,
the working poor, smoke, snort, inject or swallow shabu, also known as
crystal meth, to stay awake at night in order to earn a bit more money.
Addiction does not discriminate; it can affect anyone, regardless of
socio-economic status, sex or gender, age, or culture. That being said,
it is the most vulnerable in the Philippines who are the most affected.
They are drawn to substance use to survive, excluded from treatment
because of a lack of resources, and susceptible to being murdered if
alleged to be using or struggling from addiction.
Drug use is a symptom of a much larger problem. Attacking one symptom
of the problem does not get rid of the problem. Land-grabbing from
farmers and the economic dominance of foreign-controlled, hegemonic
companies leads to corruption and disempowerment of Philippine industry.
Without home grown production, Filipinos experience poverty, high
unemployment, and are forced to emmigrate in search of better
opportunities. Unfortunately, the killing of one portion of the
population will not fix any of these problems, nor is it likely to yield
As we approach International Human Rights Day on December 10, and the
70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next
year, it is an opportune time to reflect on humanity and to work on
developing a deeper understanding of the issues. Although we no longer
reside in the Philippines, including many of us youth who were born here
in Canada, as Filipinos we are still impacted by the struggles of those
left behind because we see ourselves in them. Let us not be quick to
judge and condemn.
Johsa Manzanilla is Amnesty International’s Country Coordinator for the Philippines and the Director of ANAK.