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Fresh from a visit to the Philippines, President Maithripala Sirisena this week stepped up the rhetoric against drug smuggling, vowing to enact the death penalty, brushing aside concerns over human rights. The President also established a new hotline for the public to complain about drug sales around the country. 

Growing drug smuggling and drug usage is a very serious problem that needs much attention. But using the drug menace as a political platform is unwise and problematic. For starters President Sirisena has been roundly criticised for commending Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs that has resulted in the deaths of at least 5,000 people and the incarceration of about 165,000 others. 

Statistics compiled by activists indicate numbers to be far higher, with numbers varying from 12,000 to 20,000 as killed by marauding death squads. Most of the squads and militia groups are given impunity by the Philippine Government despite reports of innocent civilians being gunned down. In a rare case last November three policemen were convicted of killing a 17-year-old high school student. 

Detractors have also condemned the death squad policy of targeting urban poor and failing to take down any kingpin drug dealers. The situation has become so dire that the International Criminal Court is carrying out preliminary investigations into Duterte to determine if his drug war constitutes crimes against humanity. Sri Lanka, with its long war years, is no stranger to extrajudicial killings, and should be doubly careful of being seen to be endorsing State-led violence. 

As pointed out by Sirisena himself, it is important for drug kingpins to be arrested but that can only be done by allocating more resources and expertise to investigations. It is also important to reform Sri Lanka’s drug laws, which are outdated and carry disproportionately heavy punishments for mild offenders. 

Sri Lanka’s prison system is already notoriously overcrowded and devoid of even the most basic facilities. It does not promote rehabilitation and large numbers of incarcerated are repeat offenders as a result. The judicial system also needs to be upgraded so drug cases are heard and decisions given faster. In fact reforming the investigative and judicial branches is an urgent need for overall law enforcement. If these channels work efficiently there would be less need to implement draconian regulations.   

The death penalty provides a great platform for political showmanship. In one stroke a politician can turn around his flagging popularity and remake himself as a decisive leader. But there are significant problems to introducing the death penalty, even selectively, to an already weak, under-resourced and outdated legal system. When drug lords are perceived to be protected by political leaders, the nexus between drug smuggling and politics cannot be broken easily. The death penalty, once unleashed, can have deep and unexpected consequences on hard-won civil rights and liberties. 

It is for this same reason that the drug hotline is unlikely to make substantive changes. In a country where there is no witness protection or other measures to safeguard those who come forward, it is hard to imagine that citizens would put their lives on the line to make complaints and get themselves entangled in long and possibly dangerous legal proceedings. There are no quick fixes for such serious problems. They require serious politicians and serious political will.

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