A lesson dawns in Philippine drug war

President Duterte’s support of vigilante killings of anyone suspected of drugs has not only brought demands for due process of law but more attention to the best solution: more concern for the healing of addicts.

Katsuyuki Kawai, a special advisor to the Japanese prime minister, talks to children in the Philippines undergoing drug rehabilitation. He is there for possible support from Japan toward anti-drug measures.

Soon after taking office last June, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared war on the country’s drug pushers and users, hoping to reduce crime and corruption. But he was too impatient to rely on law enforcement. Instead he supported police and vigilantes in the shooting of anyone merely suspected of a narcotics crime. Thousands have been killed, perhaps many of them innocent. And more than 700,000 alleged dealers and addicts have turned themselves in.

Crime has gone down – for now – but the blatant disregard of legal protections has created an unusual result. From Mr. Duterte on down, more people are eager to expand treatment for drug addiction. What began as a “tough on crime” approach may be shifting to a recognition of the need to heal and rehabilitate drug users, many of whom are dealers. It is no use killing dealers on the street, especially without the benefit of a trial, if the underlying reasons for drug use remain.

Many governments around the world have come to recognize the need of a treatment-first model for many nonviolent people involved in drugs. The Philippines may be the most dramatic example of this.

President Duterte’s campaign has been widely criticized, such as by the United Nations and human rights defenders. The United States, a close ally and a source of aid, also condemned the extrajudicial killings and vigilante justice. In early December, a group of 11 Philippine senators warned the president to work within the legal system and to honor the constitutional right to due process of law. “The accused deserve their day in court to prove their innocence,” the lawmakers stated in a report.

The surge of drug addicts seeking help has overwhelmed the country’s few dozen treatment centers, which can handle under 10,000 people. Out of a population of 100 million, some 2 million are suspected of being drug users.

The government is now providing more money for rehab centers and is welcoming foreign assistance to add more facilities. While Duterte remains unrepentant about the wave of killings, he at least advises religious and other community leaders to give advice to addicts on how to seek treatment. His war on drugs may be turning into a war on indifference toward addiction.

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