A woman displays a placard during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” in front of a local court in Muntinlupa city, south of Manila, Philippines October 13, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The Philippines’ official Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) unveiled a new proposal today for a government anti-drug approach that, “is about protecting the life of the people,” distancing itself from President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous, “war on drugs.” It’s the latest sign of growing unease within the government about the ongoing crackdown.

The DDB’s declaration includes an implicit recognition of the public health aspect of illegal drug use, “which recognizes that the drug problem as both social and psychological.”

There is increasing disquiet among Philippine officials with Duterte’s abusive anti-drug campaign, which nongovernmental organizations and media outlets estimate has killed more than 12,000 people over the past 15 months. Earlier this month, Duterte assigned the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to be the sole anti-drug enforcement agency and relegated the police to, “forwarding of intelligence information to PDEA.” Duterte implicitly acknowledged that the decision was linked to growing domestic and international furor over the drug campaign’s horrific human toll by stating the suspension will be “better for the bleeding hearts and media.” It’s unclear whether that “suspension” will actually have any impact on the police-backed death squads doing much of the killing. Duterte declared a similar suspension in January following revelations of the brutal murder of a South Korean businessman by anti-drug police. But he lifted that suspension a month later.

What’s different this time is that both the DDB’s declaration and Duterte’s backpedaling on police involvement in the drug war appear to be responses to growing domestic outrage over the deliberate targeting of children by police in anti-drug operations. That public dismay has helped fuel a sharp slide in Duterte’s popularity ratings, which had previously shown strong public support. But the suspension may also relate to the rising international pressure, including a United Nations (UN) joint declaration issued on September 29 signed by 39 UN member countries, demanding an end to the killings.

It’s uncertain whether Duterte will approve the DDB’s proposed shift in the government’s approach to illegal drugs. But what’s certain is that the government needs to stop the drug war killings and facilitate a UN-led international investigation as a first step to providing meaningful accountability for those deaths.