The United States State Department has suspended the sale of 26,000 military assault rifles to the Philippine National Police due to opposition to the sale by Senator Ben Cardin, a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A member of the special police force takes position in Caloocan City, Metro Manila, Philippines early October 14, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Cardin opposed the deal due to “concerns about human rights violations in the Philippines.” That’s well-justified, as the police are deeply implicated in President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs,” which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 5,000 Filipinos since he took office in June.

The National Police’s own data indicate that the campaign resulted in the police killing at least 1,736 “suspected drug personalities” between July 1 and October 28. That’s more than twentyfold the 68 recorded between January 1 and June 15. Police say an additional 3,001 alleged drug users and drug dealers were killed in that July-October period by “unidentified gunmen.” Police have attributed the police killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have not provided further evidence that the police acted in self-defense. Police Director-General Ronald dela Rosa has characterized the killings as proof of an “uncompromising” police approach to drug crimes.

The State Department’s decision is the first real US move to put teeth in its criticism of the spiraling death toll Duterte’s “drug war.” And it’s hit the police where it hurts: dela Rosa has said it “has a huge effect” on police efforts to expand their arsenal. But he can’t say that he didn’t see it coming. Senator Cardin castigated the abuses linked to Duterte’s anti-drug campaign during a September 26 Senate Colloquy as “systematic, wide-spread, brutal, and beyond the bounds for a constitutional democracy.” In that same colloquy, Senator Patrick Leahy warned of possible “further conditions on assistance to the Duterte government to ensure that US taxpayer funds are properly spent and until that government demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law.”

Duterte and dela Rosa are now on notice that the blood-letting they have encouraged carries a cost with its longtime ally. And that other US funding to the Philippines police, including $9 million in State Department aid for counternarcotics and law enforcement programs for 2017 and $32 million in assistance pledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry in July, may be at risk unless they stop the killings and honor their government’s obligation to defend, rather than abuse, the rights of Filipinos.