In August 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s redefinition of the US State Department’s mission replaces ‘democratic world’ in the previous mission statement with ‘prosperous world’. In fact, the words democracy or democratic do not appear in the new mission statement. For Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, elected in May 2016, this omission may have served if not as a subtle form of advocacy by the US for his policy of summary executions, then at least a legitimate policy of turning a blind eye. Duterte’s election accompanied not only the global trouble regarding the effects of the presidency of Donald Trump and his administration but also reflects a deeply entrenched unease in Philippine society.
The end of the state of law
Recent events reflect the disintegration of the rule of law in the Philippines, one that historically has been undermined by previous leaders. The UN Human Rights Council’s critical review of the extra-judicial killings and drugs war in the Philippines in May 2017 spawned a series of actions by President Duterte. On October 11, 2017, Duterte gave the commissioner of the United Nations and that of the European Union a 24-hour notice to leave Manila. The former mayor of Davao City warned that, should the status of the Philippines as a member state come under question, Russia and China would block a resolution to demote the state in the Security Council. It seems that ultimately realpolitik supersedes international law. Prior to this escalation, the president’s family’s finances came into question by Senator Antonio Trillanes, Duterte’s opponent and leader of the 2003 coup against then President Arroyo. Duterte did not address the corruption allegations at first and then retaliated by turning the accusation on his initiator without further recourse. Whether a matter is questionable under international law or national law, monitors of Philippine civil society within the archipelago have come to see disregard for the rule of law as a matter of course of state’s presidents, particularly Duterte, whose drug war has become in effect the rule of law of his presidency.
This War on drugs with its litany of summary executions has been the most shocking aspect of the new president’s policy. Upon election, he promised ten ways to change the Philippines, beginning with an uncompromising War on drugs. However, while the media have trivialised the massive evasion of national and international law in Duterte’s War on drugs with the use of the acronym EJK (extrajudicial killing), not since independence, has the level of violence overwhelmed the country in so short a period. The 16 years of military dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos remains a benchmark. From the institution of Martial Law in September 1970 to the People Power of 1986, or the restoration of the democracy, extrajudicial killings peaked at 3,500. Within less than a year, under the new administration, summary executions have superseded that number. According to Jude Josue Sabio, who has appealed to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to uncover mass killings in the name of the War on drugs by Duterte during his days as mayor of Davao City, Duterte is responsible for crimes against humanity. By August 2017, Human Rights Watch put the number of extra-judicial killings at 7,000 at least since June 2016 while Amnesty International came to that number nearly seven months prior, in January 2017; Sabio, counts 9,400 murders since Duterte began his war in 1988. But, for their part, the authorities deny the reality. In October 2017, the police spokesperson, along with Malacanang (the presidential palace), stated that, based on his knowledge, only one case was reported between July 1, 2016 and September 30, 2017.
The lack of response from the opposition is disturbing. Violence in the political game, assassination of politicians and journalists for instance, pre-existed the new administration and has continually eroded the state of law. The checks and balances have not counterbalanced the executive power either. Leni Robredo, both social activist and current vice president, who ran on a separate party ticket from Duterte, has come under constant attack for her attempts to check Duterte’s policies. Her anti-poverty programme coupled with her criticism of the drug war led to her forced resignation as chairwoman of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council. Since December 2016, she simply has had no power. Leila de Lima, former chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and secretary of the Department of Justice, now senator, has become the figurehead of the opposition against the War on drugs. In February 2017, she was arrested for what the police referred to as aiding the drug lords and her bail was denied by the Department of Justice. Antonio Trillanes, former candidate to the office of vice-president and current senator has taken up the flag of the opposition (see above). The Catholic Church, subject to conflicting interests, has not been at the forefront of the human rights front as it was in 1986. After a long year and the witness of thousands of extra-judicial killings of the poor, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and Cardinal Tagle ended this embarrassing silence in September 2017; Vatican Radio broadcasted the cardinal and Archbishop of Manila saying, “we cannot govern the nation by killings”. Duterte’s response to the Catholic Church’s criticism was to mock the foundational beliefs of heaven and hell and to place himself as the rogue saviour of Philippine society: “You Catholics, (…) If you want to go to heaven, then go to (your priests and bishops). Now, if you want to end drugs … I will go to hell. Come join me”. The greatest tour de force of the new president has been to muzzle the media. The Inquirer was the last newspaper to openly criticise the current violence. But the withdrawal of advertising resources, imposed by Malacanang, gagged the last newspaper critical of the president.
Strong domestic support
Despite this context of repression, how has Duterte succeeded in maintaining his popular support? In June 2017, Social Weather Stations (the Philippines’ leading survey institute) found that 78% of Filipinos had a favourable view their president; similarly, 77% were satisfied with Duterte’s War on drugs, a satisfaction rate which has remained steady over the course of the year (84% in September 2016). These results present a striking contrast with the reality of the president’s policy of summary executions. As a matter of fact, there have been no palpable tensions in Manila and no sign of the imminence of a new People Power. It seems that the whole population has accepted its fate and has even been keen to support its president.
Evocative of the hero in the Philippine soap operas, Duterte epitomises this figure, the one who because of his authority and determination will make justice triumph. Authoritarian characters, presenting themselves as the only recourse, have punctuated Philippine history. Since Quezon under the Commonwealth before the Second World War to Panfilo, ‘Ping’ Lacson, the brutal chief of police who became politician, the right-wing populist electorate maintained these figures in the political landscape, like in the landslide election of Joseph Estrada. However, the election of Duterte marks a shift. The oversimplification of the political message was the salient aspect of the campaign. Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas was beyond a doubt the most qualified contender to succeed Benigno Aquino in 2016, however, the debate on substantive issues (poverty, opening the archipelago, corruption, the cost of migrations, etc.) did not take place. Instead, Duterte put forth a stunning communication campaign highlighting his sole method to tackle complex problems: a War on drugs. A populist wave carried away Mar Roxas. This condensation of a wide socio-political national condition ironically anticipated the one in Britain for the Brexit and, of course, the election of Donald Trump.
Paradoxically, as in the case of the US president, inconstancies in foreign policy have strengthened Duterte’s domestic support. Since his election, the new president has been eager to demonstrate his power to the Americans, threatening to shift the power history between the US and the Philippines: in October, only months after his election, he warned the Americans that his country may choose to buy arms from Russia or China. While his predecessor wanted to break away from the former colonizer of the archipelago, Aquino kept up appearances. In contrast, Duterte stormily shrugs off the Americans, even as the US Special Forces continue to train and support the Philippine military and vocally looks eastward for new alliances. In October 2016, he went to Beijing for a four-day official visit. The promise of a 13 billion dollar investment in the Philippines may reshuffle the precarious balances in East Asia.
Duterte’s administration did not trigger international backlash either. The Philippines has not made the front pages of the international news media. Yet again, the Philippines may be a laboratory of foreign or internal mobilisation, either as it was under the US colonisation (implementation of a surveillance state, counter-terrorism, etc.), or more recently, with the use of social networks to mobilise popular discontent (People Power II, the Arab Spring).
Dr. William Guéraiche is Associate professor at the American University in the Emirates (Dubai). For several years, he has been working in Geopolitics, particularly the Geopolitics of the Middle East and Asia.
War on drugs, Rodrigo Duterte, rule of law Philippines.
Guéraiche William (dir.), Les Philippines Contemporaines, Bangkok-Paris : Institut de Recherches sur l’Asie du Sud-Est Contemporaine (IRASEC)-Les Indes Savantes, 2013, 619 p.
Ricordeau Gwenola, « Philippines : un massacre de masseau nom de la “guerre à la drogue” » in Santé, réduction des risques et usages des drogues. Géopolitiques et Drogues, n° 87, 2e trimestre 2017, pp. 12-16.
© Elisabeth Luquin, INALCO-CASE
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