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The silence of the people is the big killer

MANILA (SE): The bishops of The Philippines issued their first joint statement condemning the war on the poor being waged by the president, Rodrigo Duterte, at the conclusion of their 112th Plenary Assembly held at Cebu City during January.

In a statement that was read at all Masses across the country on February 5 the bishops say, “This traffic in illegal drugs needs to be stopped and overcome. But the solution does not lie in the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.”

The statement, signed by the president of the conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, takes direct aim not at the government or the president, who is not mentioned by name, but singles out the silence coming from the pews of churches and general population in the face of this murderous campaign, saying, “To consent and to keep silent in front of evil is to be an accomplice.”

They call this the greatest call for concern, saying, “An even greater cause of concern is the indifference of many to this kind of wrong. It is considered as normal and, even worse, something that needs to be done.”

The bishops then point to those who suffer directly because of the unrelenting war on the poor, saying, “The situation of the families of those killed is a cause for concern. Their lives become worse.”

They then add, “An additional cause of concern is the reign of terror in many places on the poor. Many are killed not because of drugs.”

While the bishops say that they recognise there is a problem with drugs in the country, they insist that the way to rid society of one evil is not by introducing another, adding that there are ways of dealing with crime according to the constitution and, while they may be dysfunctional, the challenge is to address that, not set out to spill as much blood as possible.

They then isolate poverty as the number one cause of the proliferation of the drug trade through the poor parts of the country, which this war, perpetrated by the government against its own people, is targeting almost exclusively.

“The step we have to take is overcoming the poverty, especially through the giving of permanent work and sufficient wages to workers,” the bishops say, going on to include the reform of a corrupt police force and judiciary.

“It is the poor who suffer from this system. We also call upon elected politicians to serve the common good of the people and not their own interests,” they say, reiterating a call that has been echoing around the Pearl of the Orient Seas since the days of the Spanish.

But the call to stop the flow of blood through the streets is also coming from outside The Philippines. Amnesty International issued a report on January 31 alleging that the Philippine police have killed and paid others to kill thousands of accused drug offenders in a wave of so-called extrajudicial executions in the past six months.

Titled, If you are poor you are killed: Extrajudicial Executions in The Philippines’ War on Drugs, the report details how the police have systematically targeted mostly poor and defenceless people across the country while planting evidence, recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they kill and fabricating official incident reports.

Tirana Hassan, the crisis response director for Amnesty International, says, “This is not a war on drugs, but a war on the poor. Often on the flimsiest of evidence, people accused of using or selling drugs are being killed for cash in an economy of murder.”

She adds, “Under President Duterte’s rule, the national police are breaking laws they are supposed to uphold while profiting from the murder of impoverished people the government was supposed to uplift. The same streets Duterte vowed to rid of crime are now filled with bodies of people illegally killed by his own police.”

A report issued by the Victorian Police Force in Australia in 2015 notes that confiscating drugs even before they hit the streets has little impact on the proliferation of their distribution or the number of people who use them.

It points out that drug hauls of today regularly stand at a level seen only occasionally a few years ago, yet the supply on the streets and the profitability of the distributors is not affected in any tangible manner.

The paper discusses how drug abuse and distribution should be treated in the context of criminal justice. “A national policy of harm minimisation has been a key principle underpinning Australia’s drug strategy since 1985,” it says, noting that this does not equate to support for illegal drugs.

It goes on to point out that it is primarily a health issue and strict policing of the streets for drugs can actually lead to an increase in price, which leads to a rise in crime as users seek to find the money to pay for them, as well as encouraging them to take more and more risks.

“It is widely recognised that street level policing can lead to harm to both the drug users and society,” the report points out.

It notes that sentencing or punishing people who are really victims of loan sharks or stand over men is counter-productive, but a misinformed public and political sector does much harm through their demands and expectations.

The Philippine bishops recognise this difficulty in their pastoral letter, but it has taken 7,000 murders to prompt them to speak with one voice.

In a call to remember the message of the Jubilee of Mercy and the Congress of Mercy that was held in Manila during January this year, the bishops say, “Let us not allow fear to reign and keep us silent. Let us put into practice not only our native inner strength, but the strength that comes from our Christian faith.”

Mercy and understanding, not the crime of murder is the way forward in addressing human ills in society.

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