Dear Europe, President Duterte does not need your threats

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

European politicians have issued an ultimatum to Manila – scale back the war on narcotics or risk losing trade privileges. President Duterte is one step ahead. The climbdown has already begun.

 By Francesca Ross

Drug pushers beware. Officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP) are back on your case. President Duterte had halted his war on narcotics for the force to regroup and reflect after scandalous allegations against them, but the night of March 6 saw them return with new energy.

Over the next eight days (until March 14) 539 operations were conducted, say the police’s own figures. They went to over 12,000 houses where 39 pushers and 1,316 users surrendered. Two drug personalities died that week and 878 were arrested.

The pace of the war against drugs may be slowing

More than 8,000 people have died in Duterte’s struggle with the drugs trade over the last eight months. It is also regularly reported that 48,000 drugs suspects had been arrested. That averages out at 250 deaths, and 1,500 arrests a week so the figures for the first week of renewed operations seem tame. PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa’s call for the next phase of operations to be, “less bloody, if not bloodless” seems to have been heard.

This progress in cleaning up the drugs operations is not enough to quieten meddling foreign interests. The European Parliament, the elected house of the European Union (EU), has issued a demand to Manila that police operations are redirected.

A declaration sent to the Palace appeals for the authorities to, “prioritise the fight against trafficking networks and drug barons over tracking down small-scale consumers.” Senator Leila de Lima, who is currently detained on drugs charges, should also be immediately released. Duterte’s allies quickly dismissed the move as a “spooked” EU trying to “micromanage” the politics of an independent state.

European institutions may take action unless the operations change track

The elected members of the house also suggest that the administrative arm of the EU should, “use all available instruments to persuade the Philippines to put an end to extrajudicial killings.” That could mean the removal of the Philippines right to GSP+ preferences which allow them to export to the EU without tariffs.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernie Abella hit back saying, “We strongly encourage the European Union to be more circumspect in basing their pronouncements and decisions on fact based evidence. So-called critics, with deep personal interests, have brilliantly manipulated biased information locally and internationally.”

Resolutions in the European Parliament are often toothless and serve as little more than indications of unrest in European attitudes. In fact, an immediate decision to remove tariff remission for Philippine industries seems unlikely. It would need agreement from national governments to meddle in the sovereignty of an elected leader – a decision EU members would not take lightly. Sanctions are still possible in the longer term.

Abella called on the European Union parliament to “reconsider its decision as we remind everyone, including international bodies, to allow us to deal with our domestic challenges without unwarranted foreign interference.” He added that “people welcome the newfound peace and order they now enjoy. Our democracy works.”

Duterte has already redirected efforts towards “high-value” suspects

The demand from the European Union is clearly unwelcome but the idea is not. President Duterte had already signed an executive order to bring together 21 state agencies in a “joint command” which will go after high-value targets. The Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-illegal Drugs (ICAD), will be made up of officers from the police, and the military, as well as members of social services, and will look at using rehabilitation as much as force.

Dela Rosa explained this group would make policy and the PNP would run the operations that implemented it. “That is added instrument toward solving drug problem in the Philippines not as a hindrance to our normal and routine police operations,” he said. Hundreds of officers are also being sent to a new Drug Enforcement Group to go after those that finance, manufacture and protect people and products in the drugs industry.

Change is in the air but Duterte may not go far enough to turn the situation around

The results from a single week of police work will not convince critics that the administration’s brutal approach has truly softened, but the direction and tone of the drugs war seems to be changing at the highest levels. The truth will come from the next weeks and months of street operations and the blood they shed. The problem is that although government attitudes may be switching, the approach of interfering foreign interests is not.

President Duterte’s reluctance to acknowledge or constructively rebut European concerns, in combination with the campaigning of people like Leni Robredo may damage important economic and political relations for the whole country, not just the government. The Philippines is now facing the very real prospect of sanctions or restrictions from the European Union and/or the United Nations which would impact growth and industry. Calming words internationally need to follow the President’s calming actions domestically. The Philippines does not need threats, it needs dialogue.