Since he came to power, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to “kill all” of the country’s criminals, especially those involved in the drug trade. And he has followed through.
Over the past year, Duterte’s crackdown has claimed more than 7,600 lives.
“These sons of wh**** are destroying our children. I warn you, don’t go into that, even if you’re a policeman, because I will really kill you,” the newly inaugurated president pledged last June.
He even gave the green light to every civilian to personally kill anyone they suspected of using drugs.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful,” Duterte said.
His war on drugs has claimed a lot of minors — many among them as young as 4 and 5.
Now, Duterte is pushing a bill lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9, giving the police the freedom target “suspects” of all ages.
The president believes school-age thieves and drug runners ought to be “taught responsibility.”
The move to target children signals Duterte's determination to intensify his drug war, which faces outrage abroad and growing unease at home. The president's allies say his support in Congress will ensure the bill passes the House of Representatives by June.
Human rights groups and advocates for child welfare oppose these decisions. Taking aim at 9-, 11- or 13-year-olds, they say, is both cruel and counterproductive.
“The war on drugs has been violent — torture, summary executions and extrajudicial killings have been used to eradicate suspected drug users,” said Rowena Legaspi, executive director of the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center, which documents drug-war killings.
The bill is an effort to broaden the campaign, she added, “criminalizing” minors and “legitimizing” state-led violence against children.
There is also resistance inside Duterte's administration.
A member of Duterte's cabinet, who heads the Department of Social Welfare and Development, opposes the move. And a branch of the police responsible for protecting women and children disputes the claim that children are heavily involved in the drug trade — a claim not supported by official data.
According to police statistics, there were 24,000 minors among the 800,000 drug users and dealers who had registered with the authorities by Nov. 30, 2016.
But less than 2 percent of those minors, or about 400 children, were delivering or selling drugs. Only 12 percent, or 2,815, were aged 15 or younger. Most of the 24,000 minors were listed as drug users.
However, Duterte is the last person to be influenced by criticism.
"Why are you Americans killing the black people there, shooting them down when they are already on the ground?" he asked in response to a journalist’s question about his lethal war on drugs. "Answer that question, because even if it's just one or two or three, it is still human rights violations."
“I am not afraid of human rights (concerns.) I will not allow my country to go to the dogs,” Duterte said, vowing to pardon all abuses committed by security forces.
“Why will I give you a (due) process? I am the president. I don't give you (due) process.”
“I don’t expect you to keep faith in me or to believe in me all the time but … God is there. I have never killed an innocent human being. Never. I don’t like it,” he added.
He even had no qualms in taking on God.
"When a 1-year-old baby, 18-months-old baby is taken from the mother’s arms brought under a Jeep and raped and killed. So where is God? My God, where are you?” Duterte said.
“I believe in God but that is my perpetual question to him. Where were you when we needed you? It’s not enough to say that at the end of the world, he will judge the living and the dead. What would be the purpose of all of that if the heartaches, sorrows and agony have already been inflicted in this world?” he went on.
The number of minors involved in the drug trade is "just a small portion," said Noel Sandoval, deputy head of the Women and Children's Protection Center, the police department that compiled the data.
Opponents warn that lowering the age of criminality would further strain a juvenile justice system that is struggling to cope. At worst, they say, with a drug war raging nationwide, the bill could legitimize the killing of minors.
The House will approve the bill "within six months," claimed Fredenil Castro, who co-authored the legislation with the speaker of the House, Pantaleon Alvarez. It might face opposition in the Senate, but will prevail because of Duterte's allies there, added Castro.
A controversial bill to restore the death penalty, another presidential priority, is also expected to pass the House of Representatives by mid-year, according to Duterte allies in Congress.
He plans to continue his drug war. In late January, he said the campaign would run until his presidency ends in 2022.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Erik De Castro