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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should not turn a blind eye this week to the thousands of victims of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs.”

During his two-day visit to the Philippines, Abe should express the Japanese government’s extreme concern about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users in the past seven months.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint press conference in Tokyo, Japan on October 26, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

If Abe maintains the same silence on these extrajudicial killings as he did when Duterte visited Tokyo in October, it will constitute a glaring missed opportunity for a longtime ally to speak out against about Duterte’s steamrolling of the rule of law since he took office on June 30, 2016.

Philippine National Police statistics indicate that police killed 2,217 “suspected drug personalities” between July 1 and January 10. Police have attributed those killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers,” but have not provided further evidence that police acted in self-defense. The police say that an additional 4,049 alleged drug users and drug dealers were killed by “unidentified gunmen” between July 1 and December 12. There are allegations that “death squads” composed of plainclothes police personnel are committing some of those killings.

These deaths demonstrate how Duterte is delivering with a vengeance on campaign promises to apply extrajudicial violence as a crime control method. During his 22-year tenure as mayor of Davao City, Duterte had been linked to the city’s death squad. He ran for president on a platform that advocated violent measures, including killings of criminal suspects, to “solve drugs, criminality, and corruption in three to six months of taking office.”

Besides protesting these abuses, Abe should also be clear that the anti-drug campaign is putting at risk Japan’s foreign development assistance, for which it is the Philippines’ largest provider. In 2014 alone, the Japanese government provided a total of US$238 million in loans, grants and technical assistance to the Philippine government. In August, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced US$2.4 billion in loans to expand light rail infrastructure in Manila. That financial support gives the Japanese government significant leverage on the Philippine government that it should apply to protest the abuses of Duterte’s “drug war.”

That’s precisely the strategy adopted by the US government. The US Embassy in Manila announced on December 14 that the US government would deny the Philippine government a new Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant due to “significant concerns around rule of law and civil liberties in the Philippines.” The MCC is a US government foreign aid agency dedicated to poverty relief through funding to health, infrastructure, energy, and other sectors. The statement alluded to the government’s full-scale assault on basic rights by specifying that criteria for MCC aid recipients “includes not just a passing scorecard but also a demonstrated commitment to the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights.” That followed the US State Department decision in November to suspend the sale of 26,000 military assault rifles to the Philippine National Police because of opposition from Senator Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Cardin opposed the deal due to “concerns about human rights violations in the Philippines.”

Close foreign allies can play an outsized role in challenging Duterte’s “war on drugs” because domestic opponents to the killing are under siege. Philippine Senator Leila De Lima’s senate hearings in August to probe the legality of the spiraling death toll prompted a torrent of harassment and intimidation from Duterte and other government officials. Duterte has also ignored and belittled the protests of international organizations. When United Nations human rights experts in August criticized the growing body count Duterte derided them as “stupid” and threatened to pull the Philippines out of the UN. When the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned Duterte in October that extrajudicial killings linked to the “war on drugs” may fall under the court’s jurisdiction as a “widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population,” Duterte threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the court.

And the Japanese government should recognize that the worst may be yet to come. In recent weeks Duterte has threatened to extend the killing campaign to include both human rights defenders and the lawyers of suspected drug dealers. The Philippine foreign minister announced on December 14 that the government had cancelled the planned official visit of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Agnes Callamard, on the basis that she “will not comply with the conditions of our president” for such a visit. One of those conditions, which Callamard described as “not consistent with the code of conduct for special rapporteurs,” included requiring her to participate in a “public debate” with Duterte.

Abe needs to make it clear to Duterte that the horrific human toll of his “war on drugs” will carry a cost in terms of suspension of Japanese financial aid, training programs and equipment sales to the Philippine National Police. Other targeted sanctions could follow. They would send a clear and urgent message to Duterte that “business as usual” with Japan is simply not an option until the killings stop and meaningful moves toward accountability begin. 

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