Lives are not the only casualties in war on drugs
Ability of Filipinos to make a stand on rights is being killed by vigilanties and social stigma
More than 100 suspected drug users and pushers are detained at a police custodial center that was designed to hold only 40 people in a police station in Manila. (Photo by Vincent Go)
The Filipino people's capacity to stand up for their rights has become a major casualty of the Philippine government's anti-narcotics war.
The war on drugs, carried without institutional reforms by a police that refuse to even recognize basic human rights norms and practices in their operations, has deepened the culture of impunity and resulted in more lawless violence.
"The members of our community used to stand together and fight side-by-side against demolition. We were ready to die fighting for our rights," said a woman community organizer in a northern Metro Manila district.
"But now there's so much fear in the community because many have been killed in this war against drugs," she added.
It is the stigma, said other community leaders.
Fighting for the right to a decent place to live was easier than defending the right to life and due process of drug addicts and pushers who are perceived as criminals.
"There's so much distrust now. I am distrusted, because one of my relatives was killed and branded a drug addict," said the woman community organizer.
Philippine President Duterte's statement during his first State of the Nation Address in July that "human rights should not be used as an excuse to destroy the country" embodied lessons in history.
These are lessons learned by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies.
The campaign against human rights violations committed by the Marcos regime was what helped intensify international pressure on the dictatorship. It significantly contributed to the undoing of the regime and in creating a united front of organizations and mass movements from the center to the left that rallied around human rights issues, which eventually hastened the regime's downfall.
It has to be human rights that should be the first casualty of this administration.
Framing the drug addiction problem as criminal or as a mere peace-and-order issue has created a gray area in the perception of mass movements and the public.
Drug addicts and small-time pushers could be killed with impunity because they were not traditionally seen as having political influence.
Human rights are now only the issue of the liberals and the humanists.
The Philippines' case under President Duterte is not the first time state security is being argued to have greater precedence over individual rights.
But does the drug menace in the Philippines amount to a threat to national security? Duterte claimed that there were 3.7 million drug addicts in the country, and lists were produced, containing mostly names of people living in urban poor communities.
The president and the Philippine National Police did not explain how they arrived at neither the total number nor the names on the lists.
According to the police the total number of persons killed in its war on drugs from July 1 to the third week of October was 4,715; of these, 1,714 were the result of police operations.
Anti-narcotics officials said the data may be "exaggerated, flawed or non-existent," but Wilkins Villanueva, director of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, sees no problem because, "Before, our fight against dangerous drugs was a lonely battle … now, everybody is helping us, the communities are helping us."
Of the 4,700 plus killed, 3,001 or 75 percent were killed "vigilante style" or as extra-judicial killings. The government, though, would prefer "deaths under investigation," as they could not all be a consequence of the war on drugs.
But none of these "deaths under investigation" have been solved in the same way that none of the perpetrators of previous cases of politically motivated assassinations of tribal leaders, rights defenders, and environment activists were prosecuted.
Community kinship has been a casualty of impunity too.
"If you were killed because of [the anti-narcotics campaign], nobody even goes to your funeral, except your own family," said one family member. "That is, if you are able to claim the dead bodies from the morgue," she added.
Family members of those killed admit that there were users in their neighborhood, even pushers — small-time drug pushers.
They knew these neighbors: young boys who would sniff solvent because this was cheaper than buying food and it would make them numb to hunger for three days; the neighborhood garbage collectors who used shabu, the so-called poor man's cocaine, to stay awake in the wee hours of the morning; young men who work as runners for big-time pushers. They were aware that using and selling drugs were not right, but it was part of their daily living in a poor neighborhood.
Their stories should not aim to romanticize, but to humanize the narrative of those who are being felled like pins in a bowling game — to show that the drug menace has social-economic roots.
During a discussion on conducting human rights training in their communities, what the community leaders asked for was not only to teach them the difficult, technically-worded rights most of them would find hard to understand but also to be heard, to regain their voice, and regain their ability as in the past, to know what to do against the police when they can no longer go to the government for protection.
Rommel Yamzon of the rights group iDefend says his organization seeks to turn ordinary citizens not only into knowledgeable and well-informed people, but also human rights defenders "so that they will be empowered to demand that their government account for the protection, promotion, and fulfillment of their human rights."
For the community members, it is critical that the stigma disappears. "That we would no longer be mistrusted," one woman said.
Clarissa V. Militante works at Focus on the Global South and is author of the novels "Different Countries" published in 2010 and "We Who Cannot Be Daughters" published in 2014.
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