A long-awaited turning point in Duterte’s bloody drug war

A landmark court ruling in the Philippines could be the beginning of a major pushback against police abuses.

Philippines Kian Delos Santos funeral - Reuters
Mourners seen at a funeral march for Kian Delos Santos, the 17-year-old student who was shot during anti-drug operations in Manila, Philippines, on August 26, 2017 [Erik De Castro/Reuters]

“Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement,” declared Filipino Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr in a landmark ruling, which may change the fate of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte‘s bloody drug war.

On November 29, the Regional Trial Court in Caloocan City found three police officers guilty of murdering Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year-old teenager, in August last year. 

The cold-blooded murder, caught on CCTV footage, provoked nationwide outrage, which immediately forced the Filipino president to issue, for the first time, a public apology. He even went so far as meeting and consoling the parents of the victim in a highly emotional encounter. Amid public outcry, he also temporarily suspended anti-drug raids by the police.

Although majority of Filipinos support a robust crackdown on crime and drugs, more than 9 out of 10 Filipinos want drug suspects kept alive, while 7 out of 10 Filipinos fear becoming a victim of extrajudicial killings themselves. Many Filipinos support Duterte’s drug war only in principle, but disagree with his brutal methods. 

The life imprisonment conviction of the three police officers could pave the way for similar rulings against other abusive law enforces and officials. Human rights groups hope that Kian’s landmark case will grind Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war to a halt and, over time, help bring justices for thousands of other victims.

Climate of impunity 

Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has promised to get rid of drug dealers by unleashing a violent anti-crime campaign, which has reportedly claimed the lives of thousands of individuals.

But instead of bringing about order, the climate of impunity in the country seems to have worsened.

According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), only two years into Duterte’s presidency there were more than 23,000 homicides under investigation. A fraction (around 2,000) of the casualties, according to the authorities, may have been related to the drug-related police raids against suspected criminals. 

But human rights groups put the number close to 12,000. The PNP itself admitted that more than 10,000 deaths were yet to have an established motive.

With midterm elections nearing, and warlords and political dynasties vying for prized elected officers, there are also fears of an open season of killing across the country. This year saw the brazen murder of several mayors, some of whom were on the president’s infamous drug list.

To Duterte, however, the Philippine state should do whatever is necessary, and embrace whatever means possible, to avoid the apocalypse of a Mexico-style “narco-state” in the Philippines.

In a speech before police officers earlier this year, he made it clear that “When I said that you go and destroy the drug industry, destroying means destroying, including human life.” 

He reassured the law enforcers that, “I will take care of you” if there were any “problem in the fulfilment of [your] duty.” To critics, Duterte essentially issued a carte blanche to policemen to deploy the full coercive power of the state against any suspected criminal.

Recently, the president even proudly proclaimed, “What sin did I commit? … My only sin is extrajudicial killing.” Halfway into his controversial presidency, however, Duterte is beginning to face growing public scepticism as well as concerted opposition to his key policies.

The arc of justice 

In its ruling on Kian’s case, the court made it clear that extrajudicial killings should never be justified in the name of law and order, since “public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life.” 

The ruling places significant pressure on police officers to be more circumspect in their drug raids and anti-crime operations, namely thinking twice before embracing the temptation of circumventing due process. 

The verdict also sets a strong precedence for families of other victims of extrajudicial killings to file similar charges against abusive law enforcers. Some of them have already taken their case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has been conducting a preliminary examination of charges of crimes against humanity against the Duterte administration. 


Some advocates hope that by early next year, the ICC will move ahead with a full investigation of charges of mass atrocities, a prelude to potential prosecution of abusive Filipino officials in the coming years.

The Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Chairman Chito Gascon recently declared, “We are hoping very soon … that in the first quarter of the next year [2019] … the ICC will look into the next stage of formal investigation [against the government].”

International pressure is building up. In its annual report, the United States State Department argued that extrajudicial killings “have been the chief human rights concern” in recent years, especially under Duterte’s presidency.

Even foreign investors have been pulling back because of concerns over the security situation in the country and the impunity with which the security apparatus operates. The public too seems to be souring on the president, who has suffered a significant decline in his popularity in recent months.

Seemingly worried about ICC prosecution, the government controversially withdrew its membership from the body earlier this year. But now the Duterte administration is hoping to leverage the landmark ruling in Kian’s case to argue that there is no need for international intervention by the ICC, since “the country has a robust judicial system.”

It is still uncertain whether the ICC will ever move ahead with prosecution of Philippine officials. What is clear, however, is that there is growing domestic pushback, among the civil society, foreign partners and courts, to end the climate of impunity in the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.