UN expert in PH: Punitive measures worsen drug problem

Bea Cupin

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UN expert in PH: Punitive measures worsen drug problem


UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard speaks at a drug policy forum organized by the Free Legal Assistance Group

MANILA, Philippines – It just doesn’t work.

While on an academic visit to the Philippines, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard reiterated that waging a war on drugs or adopting a “punitive” approach to the problem “does not work.”

“Be it community-based, national or global, the war on drugs does not work. Further, the many harms associated with drugs are not caused by drugs but by the negative impact of badly thought-out drug policies,” said Callamard on Friday, May 5, citing the outcome of a UN special assembly on the drug problem in April 2016.

Callamard is the special rapporteur of the UN and an expert on the issue of extrajudicial executions.

“Badly thought-out policies,” she said, not only fail to address the problem of illegal drugs but “compound” them. The “compounded” problems include killings, criminal gangs, breakdown of the rule of law, vigilante crimes, illegal detention of suspects, among others, Callamard said.

Callamard is in the country on the invitation of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), one of the organizers of a two-day conference on drug policies that began Friday. She was the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.

On Thursday night, May 4, she was a guest at the 30th anniversary of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent body tasked to check on abuses by state forces.

‘Multi-faceted approach’

In her Friday keynote, Callamard emphasized the importance of a “balanced, multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approach” to curbing the problem of illegal drugs.

Recounting the outcome of the UN special assembly in 2016, Callamard said: “What they did not do was to suggest that death penalty was an appropriate and effective response to drug trafficking, let alone drug use.”

While admitting that the proposed policies and the document were not “perfect,” Callamard said this was a good “benchmark” for a more effective drug policy of any country.

Callamard’s visit to Manila comes almost a year into the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs.

While President Rodrigo Duterte’s aides – including his health secretary – have said that illegal drugs is a health issue, the President himself has likened drug addicts to “zombies.” He has also said that drug suspects and criminals are not human.

The Philippine National Police has led the punitive side of the war on drugs, killing over 2,500 drug suspects in police operations since July 2016. They have also made more than 1.2 million alleged drug personalities “surrender” through Oplan Tokhang.

In Congress, Duterte’s allies also hastily passed the death penalty bill, although this is expected to face rough sailing in the Senate.

The government has had to defend itself from allegations of human rights abuses and summary killings in the name of the drug war.

Police have said that more than 1,800 deaths since July 2016 were drug-related. Another 5,000 deaths are still being investigated, according to them.

Duterte’s war on drugs has also sparked the construction of mega rehabilitation facilities all over the country. But the campaign against illegal drugs was launched long before the first planned construction was announced.

UN probe?

Duterte claimed on Thursday that Callamard was in the Philippines to investigate extrajudicial killings.

But CHR Chairperson Chito Gascon said it was an “academic visit,” which is another way that UN official can visit a country.

Duterte previously challenged Callamard to a debate on extrajudicial killings but she rejected this, saying she preferred a joint press conference instead.

Callamard was extended an invitation by the Duterte administration via a letter dated September 26, 2016. But it came with conditions, such as allowing the Philippine president to “propound his own questions” to Callamard. (READ: UN expert seeks ‘freedom of inquiry’ in probe of killings– Rappler.com 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.