The government of Bangladesh declared war against drugs on 15 May. The objective was to bring a halt to the drug trade and drug addiction. All well and good.
On 17 July 1971, former US president Richard Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’. In 1973 he set up the Drug Enforcement Agency to control drugs. Now 45 years on, the war continues. It’s good to have allies during a war and in this war US’ allies are Mexico and Colombia. The US every year provides huge grants to these two allies, Mexico and Columbia, to assist in this war. Over the last two to three years it has been seen that the number of drug addicts in the US has, for the first time, exceeded 10 per cent.
The latest massive war against drugs was undertaken by the Philippines president Duterte. Over 10 thousand people have been killed in this war in Philippines. Duterte had declared that the fishermen of Manila Bay would become rich. They are a lot like our boatmen of Chandpur at the confluence of the rivers Padma and Meghna. If the dead bodies of hundreds and hundreds of people are dumped into Padma and Meghna at Chandpur and the fish become big and fat by eating the flesh of those bodies, the fishermen can get rich by selling those fat fish in the market. That’s the sort of assurance Duterte gave the Manila Bay fishermen. Whether or not those fishermen’s earnings have actually increased is another matter. Duterte also said in this war his law enforcement agencies, if necessary, would aim and shoot at the sexual organs of women drug dealers and addicts.
Our war has just begun. Those in charge of the operations here may learn a lesson or two from the wars begun by Nixon and carried on by Duterte.
Coming to the blunders, why are these so-called wars necessary? There is a single reason. It is the complete failure of the responsible quarters to arrest the drug criminals and put them on trial. This failure has been continuing for decades. Before it was phensydyl that would come across the borders, now it’s yaba. In other words, drugs are being freely and virtually openly trafficked into this country. Drugs are everywhere, in buses and trucks, ferries and steamers, rickshaws and vans, cars and more. There is hardly any resistance from the law enforcement.
It is not that the drug traders are not being caught at all. There are even cases against them. But the results are near nil. Hundreds of thousands of drug-related cases lie pending for years. Dates are fixed, the witnesses don’t turn up, their names disappear from the lists, the investigating officer in this time span is transferred thrice to three different districts, and so the hearings are just postponed year after year.
There are no trials, no punishment. Appointments of the state counsels are on a completely temporary basis, mainly on political considerations, with no care about efficiency or qualifications. It makes no difference to them if the cases are resolved or not. Once the government changes, that’s the end of their jobs. They grasp on to the three to four years they may get, along with the kickbacks. Around eight or nine months ago, a report appeared in the media that there were around 216 thousand narcotics-related cases under trial all over the country. Things have only got worse and no one is doing anything to improve or reform the system.
These institutional weaknesses, this incompetence and inefficiency, cannot be remedied by shooting people. When these institutions become weak and fail to carry out the responsibilities bestowed upon them, the people naturally are frustrated. Drug addiction is undoubtedly an enormous problem. The lives of hundreds of thousands of young people are simply sinking into the bottomless chasm of addiction, while their families flounder helplessly. But the people see that the institutions are not being able to do anything. This leads to dissatisfaction, anger and insecurity. The people want the government to something that yields results. It is in such a situation that the government normally declares war against drugs. This has happened in many countries. Duterte came to power with commitments to wage war against drugs. In this election campaign he said, vote for me and I will wage war on drugs if made president. I will wipe them all out.
But the problem of drugs will not be resolved though gunfights if the institutions created by the state or the government to control drugs, fail to do but simply remain as they were. Let’s assume the government has the list of thousands of drug dealers. If they are all shot dead within the near future, will the problem be resolved? If the institutions do not undergo any change at all, are not reformed, if their efficiency and competence is not increased, if bribes and corruption persist, will drugs come under control?
I visited Cambodia about 20 years ago. Towards the end of the seventies the Pol Pot regime had thought that if all the evil people of the country were killed, the country would excel. The government killed 2 million people in four years, around one fourth of the entire population. There is no point of going into what I saw or understood, but the fact remains that after four decades since those killings, the country remains where it was. Who knows how long it will take for it to become Switzerland. Interestingly Switzerland has no central government per se. It’s like the US government has no home minister or inspector general of police.
After this government came to power for a second term in 2014, Cambodia’s Hun Sen was the first head of government to visit Bangladesh. Hun Sen has been head of government since 1985. I know of no country, nation or government that has been able to resolve any social problem though brutal and indiscriminate killing. The government declared this war on 15 May. As soon as war was declared, apparently these drug traders not only launched an attack on the law enforcement, but also broke out in gunfights against each other! They are killing themselves and being killed by the law enforcement too. People are dying without being tried. They are being shot dead by the police, by RAB.
Towards the beginning of the last BNP government, around 60 people died of ‘heart attacks’ in custody of the joint forces which has launched an operation against crime and extortion. A decade and a half on, has crime and extortion lessened an iota? At the time, criminals were involved in the crime and extortion. Now we all believe that a section of the law enforcement agencies are not only involved in crime and extortion, but in narcotics too. They even work as hired killers. If they continue on this killing spree, quite soon they will become hardened criminals. In countries where extrajudicial killings take place in the name of anti-drug wars, the law enforcement has become more and more involved in crime. And they are above the law. Drugs will not come under control without reforming the institution and by killing people. The country will just go from a bad situation to worse, though some people at the moment may think that they government is doing a good job.
* Shahdeen Malik is a Supreme Court lawyer and teacher of law at the University of Asia Pacific.