After a brief honeymoon period following his inauguration as president of the Philippines in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, who had referred to himself as “the country’s first socialist president”, with an election promise of pro-people policies, began to show himself in his true colours.
While he failed to address many of his other election promises, the commitment he had made to ending the country’s massive drug problem in just six months became his main policy focus. Almost three years on, the bloody war on drugs that ensued has led to the killing of some 25 000 people, mostly from the poorest sectors of society, with no end to the drug problem yet in sight. His regular tirades and threats of violence vented against any groups or individuals critical of the drug war and his blatant denial of the human rights of the victims – “Are drug pushers and addicts part of humanity?” – served to encourage the indiscriminate killing in impunity not only of drug users and peddlers but also of the lawyers that defend them and human rights activists critical of the drug war.
Duterte started to suppress all forms of criticism at an early stage in his presidency. In September 2016, Senator Leila de Lima, the chairwoman of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights that had been investigating the drug war killings, was removed from office and was jailed in 2017. Another prominent victim was the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, another strong critic of Duterte. She was unconstitutionally removed from office in May 2018 in what was referred to as “the death of democracy in the Philippines”.
After the three progressive ministers appointed to Duterte’s cabinet when he came to power failed to be confirmed in office and the cabinet became increasingly dominated by ex-military officers the hopes of positive change were dampened further. In addition, the initial spirit of optimism at the resumption of the peace negotiations between the Duterte government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines aimed at ending the 50-year long internal conflict came to an abrupt end when the talks broke down just before the economic and social issues that are at the root of the armed conflict were about to be discussed.
Violent attacks on human rights defenders and progressive lawyers increased, in particular after the introduction of a new counterinsurgency programme in 2017 aimed at crushing the armed resistance and the declaration of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao in May 2017.
Victims of rights violations under Duterte testify at an International Peoples’ Tribunal
Given the massive human rights violations perpetrated in the Philippines in a climate of impunity that made it impossible to bring those responsible to justice at home, fourteen Filipino civil society groups, including one of ASTM’s partners, the peasant movement KMP, felt there was an urgent need to focus international attention on the situation. In September 2018 they organized an international Peoples’ Tribunal in Brussels at which complaints were made against President Duterte as well as President Trump, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO and the multinational corporations and banks that do business in the Philippines on account of their respective roles in the violation of the rights of the Filipino people. Peoples’ tribunals are tribunals organised by civil society organisations and individuals to highlight issues such as rights violations that are not being addressed by formal national or international bodies. They have no legal authority but derive considerable moral authority from the integrity, expertise and capability of the tribunal members.
The charges brought included the “gross and systematic violation of civil and political rights, economic, environmental, social and cultural rights, and the right to national self-determination and development, as well as violations of international humanitarian law”. Eight jurors from Egypt, France, Italy, Malaysia, the Netherlands and the US heard testimonies from a total of 31 witnesses, some of whom gave personal accounts of the horrifying experiences their families had suffered, others provided factual information on the political and economic background in the Philippines under Duterte.
In its decision rendered on 8 March 2019 the Tribunal found the defendants guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Filipino people.
Unsurprisingly the Duterte administration dismissed the Tribunal and its findings as “a sham proceeding with no official sanction” and “a useless piece of leftist propaganda against the government”. While it is indeed true that the verdict of the People’s Tribunal is not legally binding, it is valuable both because of the renowned panel of international lawyers that presided over it and the authenticity of the mass of well-documented evidence produced. The evidence produced will be a valuable tool for presenting the disastrous situation of human rights and attacks on democracy taking place in the Philippines to the outside world.
Immediately after the Tribunal, the evidence was presented to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which is currently conducting a preliminary examination into the alleged crimes against humanity by the Duterte administration. The findings of the Tribunal will be used in the ICC Prosecutor’s in her analysis of the informational available in order to try to establish jurisdiction over the alleged crimes. Despite the fact that Duterte, in an angry reaction to this preliminary examination, withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in March 2019, the ICC considers that it could continue the prosecution of individuals for crimes committed prior to the withdrawal.
A resounding electoral victory for Duterte and his allies despite continuing human rights abuses and authoritarian rule
On May 13 2019, over 63 000 000 Filipinos voters were called upon take part in mid-term elections, in which 12 of the 24-member Senate as well as hundreds of seats in the House of Representatives and in provincial, municipal and local elections across the country were contested. The election resulted in a resounding victory for Duterte’s political allies, which was also seen as an endorsement of the president’s policies and leadership.
Critics of Duterte’s hard line policies were particularly shaken by the fact that the president now has a firm grip on the Senate, which until now had had some degree of independence and managed to block some of his more controversial initiatives that had been passed by the lower house, which was and continues to be controlled by Duterte supporters. The lower house had for example supported the drug war and martial law in Mindanao. Of the 12 newly elected members, 9 belong to the pro-Duterte camp, while the other 3 are independent. Of the uncontested seats, just four are occupied by opposition members, one of whom, Leila de Lima, is still in jail and unable to vote.
Particularly disturbing to human rights groups is the election of Ronald Dela Rosa, the ex-head of police who was the architect of the drug war. Central to his election campaign was a commitment to hard-line policies such as the reintroduction of the death penalty for drug crimes, rape and murder and lowering the age of criminal liability to below the age of 15 to just 12.
It is feared that, with Duterte now in control of both houses, the executive and holding a strong influence over the judiciary it will be easy for him to carry through his plans for constitutional change in favour of a decentralized federal system, which could also enable him to remove the one-term limit on the president’s term of office. One hope expressed by Duterte’s opponents is that independent senators could ally with the opposition members and vote against him on certain issues.
The elections were marred by violence in the pre-election period, with some 20 people killed, including four candidates and a local broadcaster. There were also reports of vote buying and instances of vote counting machines not working correctly in a number of polling stations. A further criticism concerns the abuse of the system of party-lists, which was introduced in the 1987 Constitution and allocates up to 20 % of seats for the marginalised sectors to be represented. The system is now being increasingly taken over by groups with links to political dynasties and big business. In the May election it was reported that almost half of the party-list groups did not represent the marginalised sectors.
After the election results were published mass protests broke out accusing the administration of large-scale vote rigging and election fraud.
What led to the sweeping victory of Duterte and his allies?
It is hard to understand why a leader who is responsible for – and even boasts of – the killing of thousands of his own people, who has failed to deliver on his election promises and is arguably moving the country in the direction of a fascist state can still achieve such a resounding electoral victory.
One explanation of Duterte’s continuing popularity suggested by analysts is that many Filipinos are currently more open to an authoritarian style of government because of their frustration with the established political dynasties and their failure to deliver adequate public services and economic improvements for the majority of Filipinos.
In a comment on the outcome of the recent elections, Richard Javad Heydarian, a specialist in Asian geopolitical and economic affairs speaks of “democracy fatigue”, adding that “according to a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Filipinos prefer a decisive and strong-willed leader who does not bother with institutional checks and balances”.