Can the War on Drugs be Justified or Excused? Arguing Thaksin’s Case, I

In the last couple of posts we’ve stated the human rights case against Thaksin in as firm terms as we could muster, trying our best not to water down or understate the seriousness of the charges against the ex-Thai Prime Minister.

In the interests of fair play and (hopefully interesting reading), we now want to turn things round and ask the question of what, if anything, could excuse, justify, or at least mitigate Thaksin’s war on drugs, taking as fact (as admitted by the government itself) the 2500+ unsolved extra-judicial deaths it brought about? We will further take for granted an understanding is that no one (to my knowledge) is accusing Thaksin of personally carrying out or ordering any particular killing, and that the charges are that he and his policies both fostered and failed to redress a climate in which violent police behavior was deemed acceptable if not desirable.

Here are some possible responses:

1. Thailand had/has a serious drug problem, indeed a crisis, and drastic measures were required. Arguments of this type have repeatedly been invoked by Thaksin; and it is true that in December 2002 the king called for dramatic action against drug abuse, and that the idea of a war on drugs was widely endorsed by all sectors of Thai society. Reportedly up to 5% of Thais used methamphetamines regularly in 2002, and there were widespread complaints about lawless behavior by drug dealers.

2. You have to weigh the benefits of the war on drugs against the costs. This argument is invoked by Thaksin in his repeated talk of how the war on drugs helped millions of children and “the young generation.”

3. Whatever went wrong in the war of drugs is more the responsibility of lower-level officials in the police than the Prime Minister. I’ve seen this argument pop up in the intense debates about the war on drugs and the question of responsibility in the Southeast Asian corner of the academic blogosphere; see this recent debate (in the comments) from The New Mandala for an example.

4. Policymakers alone cannot be held responsible for the excesses of the war on drugs. After all, the war on drugs was popular, and reflected the democratic will of the people.

Four quick comments. First, responses #1 and 2 will be most persuasive to those who embrace a utilitarian approach to public policy; that is, the view that the aim of politics is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, by any means necessary. The human rights groups hold a contrary view of politics, in which public action, even for a good cause, must be restrained by respect for basic human rights, the right to life central among them.

Now even utilitarians appreciate the idea of rights as a useful social convention, but one could imagine a utilitarian saying in some cases the rights of a minority have to be sacrificed for the common good. The human rights groups, however, will never say that and hence would reject responses #1 and 2 on moral grounds, whatever the facts.

Second, it’s not clear what the tangible benefits of Thailand’s war on drugs were, let alone that they were large enough to justify the costs in a comprehensive utilitarian calculus. It has been repeatedly reported that the crackdown did not lead to the capture of major drug kingpins. Likewise, Human Rights Watch has argued that the crackdown contributed to the spread of AIDS by forcing drug addicts underground and out of clean needle programs. A 2005 Johns Hopkins study, however, did find amongst a sample of 165 heroin users that 78% of rural users and 55% of urban users quit heroin, though one-third of these switch to meth or other drugs.

At the end of the day, however, no one argues that drug use in Thailand has disappeared, or that the policy achieved the stated goal, “To quickly, consistently and permanently eradicate the spread of narcotic drugs and to overcome narcotic problems, which threaten the nation.”

Third, the question of relative responsibility between top and lower-level officials, a legitimate question, points to the need for a truly independent investigation of the entire episode.

Fourth, the question of whether majority will can justify the excesses of the war on drugs mirrors the question of whether utilitarian benefit can justify what happened. In other words, human rights organizations are not going to be impressed with the claim that it was “majority will”; so was slavery in the United States until 1863 and formal racial discrimination until the second half of the twentieth century. The entire point of human rights, they will say, is to protect minorities from domination by majorities. Some radical democrats—following in the philosophical tradition of Thomas Hobbes—may still endorse the idea of unqualified, unrestricted majority rule, but that is an increasingly rare position amongst academic philosophers as well as common opinion.

Still, there is an important point contained in this line of defense of Thaksin. What Thaskin carried out would not likely have happened in a country with better developed democratic norms. In short, the horrors of the war on drugs reflect not just on the regime but on Thai political culture as a whole, it could be argued. A potential rebuttal is that Thaksin himself was largely responsible for shaping that culture, particularly in his attitude towards the media and nongovernmental organizations. (More on that next week.)

There may be more available defenses regarding the war on drugs that Thaksin could appeal to, but these are the most obvious and most commonly repeated in discussions I have seen.

Next post: mitigating factors?


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