Duterte out, Marcos in: What has happened to the country’s campaign against illegal drugs?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 16) — Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs focused on "enforcement" and has left thousands dead. With a new government, how is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. dealing with the country’s problem with illegal drugs?

A different approach

During his presidential campaign, Marcos vowed to continue the Duterte administration’s anti-drug campaign but in a “different way.”

Marcos earlier said his administration has a working group formulating policies that will focus on prevention -- which includes educating the youth -- and rehabilitation.

“Those who are already involved or na-adik na (already addicted), we should treat them," Marcos said. "Right now, we're trying to formulate what is the latest, what's the best way for the rehabilitation. These are all being formulated."

READ: Marcos: New drug war to focus on prevention, rehab; policy-crafting underway

Launched in November 2022, the Buhay Ingatan, Droga'y Ayawan (BIDA) program aims for a more refined approach to the problem of illegal drugs.

Under the program, local government units and agencies such as the Social Welfare, Health, and Trade Departments were tasked to create rehabilitation and livelihood projects.

The president said this is part of his administration’s holistic approach to the drug problem, which differentiates it from his predecessor’s.

READ: Marcos administration launches new anti-drug campaign, vows new focus

Duterte’s focus on enforcement

In 2016, during his first year in office, Duterte launched his government’s campaign against illegal drugs dubbed Oplan Tokhang.

According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), 7,000 persons were killed from June to December that year.

READ: Duterte's War on Drugs: A controversial centerpiece of a President's legacy

The campaign remained controversial throughout the six years of his administration. But until the last days of his presidency, Duterte refused to apologize for his bloody war on drugs.

"Kill me, imprison me. I will never apologize," Duterte later said.

Accountability in human rights abuses

The clamor for accountability for alleged human rights abuses under Duterte’s anti-drug campaign continues.

On July 18, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to release its decision on the Philippine government’s plea against the court’s resumption of its probe.

READ: ICC chamber to decide on PH appeal vs. drug war probe on July 18

The ICC halted its probe into the anti-drug campaign in 2021 at the request of the Duterte administration, but decided to resume its investigation this year.

Earlier this year, the ICC rejected the Philippine government’s claim that the killings and other crimes related to the anti-drug campaign are of “marginal gravity.”

“To the contrary, they are extremely serious, and appear to have been at the very least encouraged and condoned by high-level government officials, up to and including the former President,” ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said.

READ: Thousands of killings in drug war ‘encouraged’ by Duterte — ICC prober

Marcos said the Duterte administration’s effort to eradicate illegal drugs in the country led to human rights abuses.

“Perhaps, in my view, what happened in the previous administration was we focused very much on enforcement, and because of that, it could be said that there were abuses by certain elements in the government that have caused concerns from many quarters in about the human right situation of the Philippines,” Marcos said.

READ: Marcos admits ‘abuses’ linked to Duterte’s drug war

Despite this, Marcos still refuses to support the ICC probe.

He earlier told CNN Philippines that investigators from the ICC can only come to the country as “tourists.”

"We are not signatories to the Rome (Statute) agreement anymore. We withdrew," he said. "They can come. They can be tourists and look at the Philippines. But I don't know what they expect that the government will do beyond that."

Human rights group Karapatan said the Marcos administration’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation of the ICC contradicts his promise of a more holistic approach in his anti-drug campaign.

“All these indicate not just the empty rhetoric of the Marcos Jr. administration in pursuing justice for the drug war victims, but its complicity in whitewashing the crimes of Duterte and cohorts and its perpetuation of the same draconian policies,” Karapatan said in a statement.

Last May, the families of the drug war victims urged the ICC to proceed with its investigation as they see “no actual investigation” done in the Philippines.

READ: Drug war victims see no justice under Marcos admin — ICC

What’s happening so far?

From January 1 to June 9, 2023, the Marcos administration’s campaign against illegal drugs recorded 19,464 police operations, 25,641 arrests, and the confiscation of ₱6.2 billion worth of illegal drugs.

RELATED: PNP: Over 2,000 arrested for illegal drugs in first 2 weeks of 2023 

Marcos also vowed to file cases against PNP officials involved in drug trafficking.

Last June, the government filed a criminal complaint against 50 police officers over their involvement in irregularities in the 990-kilogram shabu drug haul in October last year.

RELATED: Napolcom, PNP file criminal complaint vs. 50 personnel linked to 990-kilo shabu drug haul

In a June report, the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center logged at least 300 drug-related killings since Marcos became the president.

An international human rights group urged Marcos to make concrete efforts to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines.

“President Marcos needs to do more than issue statements about democracy and the rule of law to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights,” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Without concrete action to break old patterns of abuses and secure accountability for past crimes, his words have little credibility,” she added.