The Blog

Drug War Body Count

President Duterte has justified his brutal crackdown by arguing that the Philippines is 'drowning' in drugs. As more and more information emerges, it is clear that his country is also drowning in blood. Blood that seems to stain the hands of every country the war on drugs touches.

In April this year I spoke on a panel on the death penalty for drug offences alongside the Philippines Ambassador to the United Nations. In her presentation, the Ambassador explained why her government had made the decision in 2006 to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, including drug offences, an important political statement in a region known for its punitive drug laws.

With her words still fresh in my mind, it was with profound sadness that I watched the ascension of Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippines Presidency a month later, coming to power on a frightening platform that espoused not only a call to reinstate capital punishment, but also an open incitement for police and civilians to kill people involved in the drug trade.

President Duterte was inaugurated on 30th June, and in his first month in office we have witnessed what can only be described as State-sanctioned criminality on a mass scale. Reports detail up to 300 people murdered in the streets, a figure thought to be conservative as it reflects only those killed in police operations, and not killings perpetrated by armed vigilante groups actively encouraged by the President.

A local newspaper maintains a regularly updated 'Kill List', providing a gruesome catalogue of the slaughter. Many of those killed are found decorated with homemade signs left by their murderers: 'Pusher Ako' - 'I am a drug pusher'. Such open brutality in the name of 'fighting drugs' has not been seen since 2003 when the Government of Thailand murdered 2,000 alleged drug dealers in a three-month killing spree widely condemned by human rights organisations and UN bodies.

Today, a group of over 300 non-governmental organisations from around the world released an open letter demanding an end to these abuses.

While the ongoing abuses in the Philippines are extreme, they are sadly not unique. Indeed, the body count in the global war on drugs keeps climbing week on week, year on year. A review of the news in the past month alone offers a grim snapshot of the carnage.

In Indonesia, four people were executed for drug offences last week, with more expected to be killed in the coming months. These executions add to the fourteen people executed for drug offences the previous year.

As in the Philippines, these killings are politically driven by a newly elected President seeking to look 'tough on crime'. Indeed, prior to President Jokowi's election in 2014, Indonesia was on the verge of ending executions altogether. The influential Islamic scholar, Prof Tariq Ramadan, recently released a letter to Jokowi, the President of the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, arguing that 'the death penalty for drug-related offences is not at all regulated and/or in accordance with the agreed upon Islamic legal framework'.

Prof Ramadan's call to end the death penalty for drug offences based on Islamic legal principles also resonates in other parts of the world. Two weeks ago, Iran Human Rights reported that at least 250 people have been executed the first six months of 2016, half of them for drug offences. Iran therefore maintains its place along with Indonesia as one of the small group of 'extreme fringe' nations that execute drug offenders in staggering numbers (the others being China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam).

But the drug war body count goes beyond explicit State-sponsored violence.

Two weeks ago in Mexico, 14 people were shot dead - 11 of them relatives, including five girls - in feuding between rival drug cartels, adding to the more that 100,000 people killed in the country's drug war since 2006.

On June 29th, the Russian government began persecuting the courageous Andrey Ryklov Foundation as a 'foreign agent'. Their crime? Fighting for the rights and health of drug users in a country in which the government's pathological refusal to support life-saving harm reduction programmes has resulted in a doubling of rates of HIV infection among people who inject drugs since 2011, resulting in as many as 30,000 preventable deaths annually.

In late June, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency reported that fatal opioid overdoses have more than tripled in that country since 2007. In some cities, overdose deaths are so numerous that they have no room to store the bodies.

In late July, 36 overdoses were recorded in a single Canadian neighbourhood over the course of one weekend. Deaths were fortunately averted in these cases because of access to the life-saving overdose reversal medication naloxone, although not everyone is so fortunate. Earlier this month the coroner's office reported deaths from overdose in the province of British Columbia are up by 75% over last year.

I have written previously on the pernicious impacts of 'punitive suppression' - the belief that harsher punishments for drugs will result in more effective suppression of drug use and drug markets. This logic underpins the legal and policy frameworks for drug control in almost every country or the world, driving the criminalisation, marginalisation and violence that make deaths from all the causes above (and more) sadly predictable.

Whether driven by brutal police and military crackdowns, battles between rival drug gangs, State sanctioned executions or health risks created or exacerbated by criminalisation, reports such as these are the now predictable outcome of the global drug regime that prioritises criminalisation over health, violence over human rights, ideology over evidence.

President Duterte has justified his brutal crackdown by arguing that the Philippines is 'drowning' in drugs. As more and more information emerges, it is clear that his country is also drowning in blood. Blood that seems to stain the hands of every country the war on drugs touches.

An earlier version of this piece was published by Open Society Voices.