The (Im)moral Justifications of Duterte’s Anti-drug War
By Edgar Lores
“Human rights are not worthy of the name if they do not protect the people we don’t like as well as those we do.” Trevor Phillips
Three ethical doctrines have been asserted to justify President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug war. These are:
o The utilitarian doctrine
o The ethnocentrism doctrine
o The self-defense doctrine
The first doctrine can be gleaned from Duterte’s utterances and the last two have been articulated by his supporters in the news and social media.
The Utilitarian Doctrine
To my knowledge, Duterte has never explicitly explained his rationale for mass killing. What he has expressed, time and time again, is his willingness to kill. During the campaign, he exclaimed, “Kung hindi ka handing pumatay o mamatay, hindi ka puwedeng mag-presidente!” [Translation: “If you are not prepared to kill or be killed, you are not qualified to become the president.”]
In his inaugural address, he gave us a glimpse of the basis for his worldview: “I have seen how illegal drugs destroyed individuals and ruined families.”
And in the SONA, he said, “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country — your country and my country.”
From these two pronouncements, we infer that the moral philosophy underlying the anti-drug war is utilitarianism. I must point out the second quote perfectly embodies the “logic of victimization” of fascism.
Utilitarianism is “the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority.”
It is one form of the school of ethics known as consequentialism. In this school, the measure of morality rests on the “consequences” of man’s actions.
In addition to utilitarianism, we can more particularly pigeonhole Duterte’s war as “state consequentialism” since we are dealing here with a state-sanctioned program. Under this conviction, “all actions, practices, and policies that promote the overall welfare of society are morally right, and those that interfere are morally wrong.”
From Duterte’s view, the consequence of the drug trade and drug addiction is the unacceptable tearing of the fabric of society. There is great truth in this. The pernicious effects of drugs, not only in the Philippines but in every country, can be seen in the compulsive search for ersatz bliss, in the waste of unproductive lives, and in the ensuing waves of criminality. All of these, plus the loss of hope, weigh heavily on the mind and on society.
But can the government use immoral means to achieve the moral purpose of cleansing society of drugs?
This is a tough question with seemingly no ready answers.
To my mind, there are at least two major reasons why the government cannot be allowed to do this.
Let me clarify that these reasons are not against the utilitarianism principle itself but against the particular method Duterte has chosen to achieve the principle. If it were possible to make changes that improve the general welfare without a single individual being worse off — the Pareto Efficiency — then the utilitarian principle would be perfection itself.
First Argument Against the Utilitarian Doctrine
The first reason is that our Constitution disallows it.
In this regard, the entire Bill of Rights, contained in Article III of our Constitution, is worthy of our study. There are two provisions worth quoting:
Section 1. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.
Section 14. (1) No person shall be held to answer for a criminal offense without due process of law.
The import of the rule of law, human rights, and due process can neither be taken lightly nor be overemphasized. It has taken centuries for us, for mankind, to arrive at the formulation of these norms. They are the bedrock of modernity, and they should not be easily cast aside for dubious and expedient reasons.
To circumvent the constitutional grant of human rights, Duterte has claimed the influence of drugs has “reduced human beings to a bestial state.” Not only that. He has actually made the final judgment drug addicts are “no longer viable as human beings” and that “junkies are not human.”
Many commentators have noted that the dehumanization of a class of people, the denial of their essential humanness, is a tactic of oppression. When we dehumanize people we are saying they are beyond rehabilitation (a legal concept) and redemption (a spiritual concept). In this manner, we extend to others an open invitation not only to mistreat them but to inflict violence — and ultimately death — upon them.
It is true the Constitution recognizes that peace and order are “essential for the enjoyment by all the people.” But nowhere in the Constitution is the President granted the power, in pursuit of these aims, to disregard the rule of law or to abuse human rights.
In his inaugural speech, Duterte declared, “My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising.” Subsequently but not consequently, he also declared, “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.” And while reading a list of government officials engaged in drugs, he said, “There is no due process in my mouth.”
As a man with a loose tongue, Duterte reveals what he truly thinks more in his off-the-cuff remarks — and expletives — than in his prepared speeches.
With these contradictory statements, it is obvious the President has a “striking lack of understanding of human rights, institutions, and the principles which keep societies safe” as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has stated.
Make no mistake: the indiscriminate killings in the anti-drug war, whether the killings are conducted by vigilantes or by police personnel, are contrary to the norms and ideals enunciated in our Constitution.
Second Argument Against the Utilitarian Doctrine
The second reason is that the desirable consequences expected from the war cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Neither can they be guaranteed in the long term.
To be sure, there is evidence in the short term that the war has produced beneficial results. As many have attested, there is anecdotal evidence a fitful peace now transpires throughout the land. And as the PNP has claimed, there is statistical evidence the crime rate has gone down.
Let us grant for a moment that these are true.
What cannot be granted, however, is that the beneficial effects of the war will continue through time, or even just up to the end of Duterte’s six-year term. History tells us otherwise. The parallels between Duterte’s war and the Thai and Indonesian experiences are remarkable.
In early 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched an anti-drug campaign that, like Duterte’s, had overwhelming popular support. Like Duterte’s:
- The promise was to solve the rampant criminality in a short period: 3 months versus 6 months.
- The estimates of the death toll in the first 3 months were roughly the same: 2,800 versus 3,000 bodies.
- The immediate gains were visible and significant: a tenuous peace and a reduced crime rate.
By 2005, however, the campaign had lost popular support and in the following year, Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup. Today, Thailand is caught once again in a drug crisis. An addiction to yaba, the Thai version of shabu that is a mixture of caffeine and methamphetamines, is terrorizing the country.
Between 1983 and 1985, Indonesian President Suharto set off, not an anti-drug campaign as such, but more of an anti-crime wave dragnet. The operations were carried out by military death squads named “Petrus” after the Indonesian name of Saint Peter, guardian of the pearly gates of heaven.
This happened at a time when Duterte served as Second Assistant City Prosecutor for Davao from 1983-86. The proximity of time and place would suggest that Petrus provided the modus operandi and the inspiration for Duterte’s crackdown in Davao in 1989 and now throughout the nation in 2016. In addition to the use of death squads, other similarities between the forerunner Petrus killings and Duterte’s war are noteworthy:
- The estimates of the criminals put to death range from 2,000 to 3,000 — and as high as 10,000.
- Suspects were asked to surrender and blacklists were created.
- The lists were used by government forces to hunt down criminals who did not regularly report back to authorities.
- The bodies of the dead were strewn in public places.
- Some victims had no criminal records.
Today, Indonesia, despite having the death penalty, is caught in a drug crisis just like Thailand and the Philippines. And, in a reversal of roles, Indonesia is currently mulling to imitate Duterte’s war.
Other anti-drug wars have been conducted in other countries, such as Mexico and the American proxy wars in Latin America, Afghanistan, and Africa. By now, the lesson should be as clear as day: nowhere on earth and at any time has a murderous anti-drug war succeeded.
Before moving on to the second doctrine, there is a third reason I should mention why the option of mass killings is not acceptable. Countries like the Netherlands and Portugal have devised and are implementing solutions to the drug problem that are both non-violent and effective.
It is not beyond us to develop similar humane approaches.
The Ethnocentrism Doctrine
Ethnocentrism is the “evaluation of a culture according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of another culture.”
The charge of ethnocentrism has been leveled by Duterte supporters against critics who use the ideals of Western civilization to criticize Duterte’s fascist tendencies and his anti-drug war. The exalted notions of liberal democracy and of human rights, they argue, are Western standards and do not constitute foundational norms of Filipino culture.
This argument is easily rebutted.
The Western values that are supposedly alien to our culture have been embedded in our various basic, organic and autonomy laws, starting way back from more than a century ago in the 1899 Malolos Constitution. While the Malolos Constitution was never fully implemented, the succeeding constitutions beginning with the 1935 Constitution were accepted and ratified by the people.
The Philippines was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Then in 1948 the world organization produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and our country was among the 48 countries that voted in favor of it. The luminous document comprehensively recognizes the inherent dignity of all human beings and enumerates their universal inalienable rights.
Moreover, the country has adopted and ratified other international protocols, namely the:
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified in 1974)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified in 1986)
- Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified in 1989)
We have formally embraced the principles and enjoyed the benefits of democracy, justice, and human rights for more than three full generations. Therefore, we cannot plead ignorance and claim these universal values are not part of our birthright.
Duterte apologists will counter that a period of three generations is not sufficient time to overcome centuries of cultural conditioning in the social construct of datuship that Duterte and his family – and indeed the whole of Mindanao – exhibits. And they would be right… but only less than half-right. Culture is malleable. And the very fact that more votes accrued to Duterte’s progressive opponents — 20.5M versus 16.6M (not counting Binay’s votes) — show Filipinos have imbibed “Western” values and rejected death-driven and corrupt-driven political stratagems. The Silent Minority outnumbered the Vocal Majority.
The Biblical Justification of Self-Defense
In theory, the injunction “Thou shalt not kill” is absolute. In practice, the Bible justifies killing in three instances: war, self-defense, and capital punishment. Our legal system accepts the first two and Duterte would like to bring back the third.
While the term “war” has been applied to the anti-drug campaign, this is by no means war in the formal sense. If this were truly a war, the enemy would be China from where the chemicals needed to manufacture drugs come, and where Duterte has admitted the drug lords reside.
The legal definition of self-defense is: “the use of reasonable force to protect oneself or members of the family from bodily harm from the attack of an aggressor, if the defender has reason to believe they are in danger.”
There are two elements to self-defense. The first is that the danger posed is not mere loss of possessions but the loss of life. The second element is that the danger must be imminent.
Premeditated and preventative killing is not self-defense.
Do drug personalities pose an immediate threat to life? No, not to ordinary citizens, they do not.
In my recollection, there has only been one reported case since June 1 of an innocent’s death caused by a substance abuse user, and the substance was not primarily drugs but alcohol.
There have been three types of killings in the anti-drug war: vigilante killings, police killings, and collateral damage.
Vigilante killings are illegal and, therefore, cannot be classified as self-defense. As of August 18, close to 900 such killings have been reported. These widespread killings have been triggered and encouraged by Duterte’s call to slaughter.
Police killings have been largely extrajudicial although the police have gone to great pains to paint the victims as “aggressors” with cheap guns and drug packets planted beside the bodies of the victims. A dozen police (and military) personnel have been killed so far as against 756 drug personalities. The lowly figure of 1.5% in police deaths belies the myth of self-defense.
In both vigilante and police killings, there has been collateral damage. The volume of collateral deaths in cardboard justice has not been established. The friends and families of some victims have denied their loved ones were engaged in drug activities.
That the death of innocents (and other non-drug related deaths) has clearly taken place makes the anti-drug war unpalatable and unacceptable. This is an indiscriminate and brutal war that totally disregards the sanctity of human life.
How long will this war last? This is anybody’s guess. Duterte has said, “We will not stop until the last drug lord… and the last pushers have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.”
We may be talking of a long and oppressive six years. But events are moving fast.
It has become painfully obvious that in so short a time Duterte has brought the country to a new low in the eyes of many local and international observers.
During the presidential campaign, Duterte made the capacity to kill as the sine qua non for the presidency. This should have served as a forewarning of the turmoil that now engulfs the nation. It is a bitter lesson to be learned. In the future, it is to be hoped people will remember the ability to take lives is not the highest qualification for office. Rather, it is the opposite: the ability to foster life, the ability to move the nation forward socially and economically, and the ability to embrace all citizens inclusively.