President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his displeasure over the continuing attention being paid by various groups and organizations such as Amnesty International and other human rights groups and the United Nations, to the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in the country, particularly those identified with the regime’s murderous “war” on drugs.
Thirty-nine countries have also signed a declaration expressing concern over the human rights situation in the Philippines.The 39 — seven more than the 32 that had expressed the same concern last June — Include the country’s leading trade partners: the United States, Australia, and Canada. They described the state of human rights in the Philippines as “serious” and urged the Philippine government to stop the killing of suspected drug users and pushers as well as of journalists and human rights defenders, put an end to the culture of impunity (the exemption from punishment of murderers and other wrong doers) that the statement implied has become even more pronounced during the Duterte regime, and allow an independent investigation without conditions.
The regime response was to declare that it won’t be dictated upon, although, rather than telling the government what to do, the statement merely suggested that it look into the problem. But it is correct to assume that some of the 39 are likely to have an agenda other than the Philippines’ complying with international human rights standards as well as its own laws, because they do have interests — economic, political and military — to advance and protect.
The Duterte regime has responded to criticism of its human rights record in various other ways, among them by:
(1) questioning the critic’s right to do so, as it did through Mr. Duterte himself when former US President Barack Obama expressed his concern over the drug-related killings. Mr. Duterte responded by recalling the US’ own sordid human rights history during its war of conquest in the Philippines;
(2) denying the existence of impunity, and that the killings happened and are still happening, as Malacanang spokespersons as well as Philippine National Police Director-General Ronald de la Rosa have often insisted;
(3) saying that EJKs and impunity are problems that antedate the Duterte regime;
(4) rejecting suggested steps to help remedy the situation, as the regime has done in the case of the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 105 recommendations;
(5) claiming that the war on drugs is a means of defending human rights, as Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano declared before the UNHRC; and
(6) exaggerating the extent of the drug problem, as Cayetano did when he told the UN that there are seven million (7,000,000) drug addicts in the Philippines.
Cayetano’s seven million nearly doubles the four million-plus figure that Mr. Duterte himself has declared is the number of drug addicts in the Philippines, and which is more than double the 1.8 million that in 2016 the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) said was the number of illegal drug users. (The PDEA figure has since conformed with that of Mr. Duterte’s after the latter fired its former head for disagreeing with him.)
The Cayetano figure, if accurate, would suggest that the anti-drug campaign is not only failing despite the high cost in lives that some human rights groups estimate at 13,000; it is also making the problem worse. Meanwhile, Mr. Cayetano’s claim that the drug war is meant to defend human rights is too bizarre for words, that war having exacted a tremendous price on the rights to life, due process and the presumption of innocence. (One can imagine the shock or amusement of those who heard Mr. Cayetano’s disingenuous statement, his audience of diplomats being neither gullible nor stupid.)
These absurdities aside, it is nevertheless true that impunity has been a fact of Filipino existence for some time and that EJKs have been going on in every administration since that of Marcos. But what cannot be denied is that the number of EJKs since July 2016, even if pegged at a low 3,800 during the first year of Mr. Duterte’s term, would equal the 14-year record of the Marcos dictatorship during which almost the same number were extrajudicially killed by regime security forces, with no one being tried and punished for those crimes. The Duterte record so far, if indeed only at 3,800 more or less, would be about three times the number of EJKs (1,200) recorded during the nine-year watch of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. None of those responsible for the killings during Year One of the Duterte regime have been punished. The victims include women, young adults, and minors as young as four years old.
The numbers — and the 13,000 figure cited by human rights groups is over three times 3,800 — are what have caught the attention of other countries, human rights organizations and the UN. Their concern is occurring in the context of the Philippines’ reputation as an alleged democracy with a Constitution that guarantees the protection of human rights.
The Philippines is also a signatory to international agreements and protocols affirming respect for the rights to life and to a fair trial, and the presumption of innocence — rights enshrined as well in the Constitution. It has also banned the death penalty, and what’s more is one of the original 48 countries that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Because of these, the Philippines from afar looks like a country that truly values human rights. But that perception is rapidly changing, thanks to Mr. Duterte and company.
It is true, as regime spokesmen complain, that international outrage was not as pronounced during the Aquino or Arroyo regimes. The reason for this is that neither Benigno Aquino III nor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo openly dismissed human rights as of no concern, threatened human rights defenders, or publicly encouraged police extremism as Mr. Duterte has done. Both Aquino and Arroyo are on record as affirming the need for State respect for human rights, despite the EJKs and the killing of journalists that continued during their respective terms.
In short, the reason why so many countries, organizations and groups are concerned over what’s happening in the Philippines is that it is shocking and unprecedented, and as a result has become an international scandal and a global disgrace. But international attention may not end with the Philippines’ being merely regarded as a country whose foul deeds don’t match its Constitutional and international commitments.
Neither its growing reputation as a rogue regime nor that of the country as a killing field may matter to the Duterte administration. But if that is indeed the case, what should worry it is what the countries that look unfavorably at what’s happening will do in terms of trade restrictions and other economic measures that can adversely affect the country’s already faltering economy. What should also be of equal or even more urgent concern is that the country’s ill-repute can be used to pressure it, through threats of economic and political isolation, into granting foreign interests concessions likely to be to its disadvantage.
Neither has happened yet, but one or the other or both can transpire, resulting in the country’s further impoverishment and/or the worsening of its status as a neo-colony and a flunky of foreign interests. Despite the regime’s pretense at protecting Philippine sovereignty (“we won’t be dictated upon”), the surge in the number of EJKs and other atrocities and the hardening of the culture of impunity in the course of Mr. Duterte’s “war” on drugs has made the country even more vulnerable, should some of those countries supposedly concerned with the human rights crisis in the Philippines decide to do more than talk.
Erratum: A version of this column that appeared on BusinessWorld said that 3,800 EJKs would be a third of those that happened during the nine years of the Arroyo regime. It should have said 3,800 is THREE TIMES those committed during the Arroyo administration. My apologies.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.