In his message for National Heroes Day this year, President Rodrigo Duterte urged Filipinos to uphold the rule of law as the best way to express their appreciation for the sacrifices of the heroes who fought for the country’s independence.
“Let us honor them by upholding the rule of law, protecting our nation and fostering goodwill among ourselves,” his message read. Mr. Duterte also pledged to “harness the same virtues as we continue to fight against lawlessness, criminality and poverty that hinder us from achieving our full potential.”
The message came in the wake of growing outrage over the murder of 17-year old Grade 12 student Kian Loyd De Los Santos by members of the Caloocan police force. The killing of De Los Santos and of 80 others last week in Manila, Pasay City and Caloocan were in addition to the 7,000 to 12,000 extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of suspected illegal drug users and/or pushers since Mr. Duterte assumed the Presidency last year and launched his savage — and failing, by his own admission — “war” on the illegal drug trade.
On the eve of National Heroes Day also came, via presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, a Malacanang statement urging the public to trust the justice system and to let the law “take its due course” in the De Los Santos case.
Apparently echoing his principal’s alarm over the gathering anger provoked by the De Los Santos murder that could escalate into demands for Mr. Duterte’s resignation, Abella argued that since a murder complaint has been filed in court, outraged citizens should stop taking to the streets to demand justice for De Los Santos and all the victims of police violence.
If it was the first time Abella had expressed his faith in the so-called justice system, it was also the first time that any advocacy for upholding the rule of law has fallen from Mr. Duterte’s lips. His message was in fact starkly at odds with his many statements indicative of his impatience with, and even contempt for, the rule of law.
Among those statements, for example, is his assuring the police a number of times that he would make sure they’re not prosecuted for any wrongdoing in the course of his anti-drug “war,” and that, if they’re tried and convicted anyway, he would pardon them. It was these declarations that undoubtedly emboldened the already abusive police to ignore such legal niceties as the presumption of innocence and to claim that all of those they’ve killed in the course of anti-drug operations, including Kian Loyd De Los Santos, fought back or resisted arrest.
Mr. Duterte’s other statements dismissing human rights as a hindrance to his waging his “war” on drugs and as a shield for criminality were similarly at odds with the rule of law. The Constitution after all guarantees due process and the presumption of innocence, and the Philippines is a signatory to international agreements assuring everyone of respect for those inalienable rights. Encouraging police exemption from public accountability, his police chief has even gone to the extent of ordering policemen to ignore criticism and to continue to do what they’ve been doing, in blatant disregard of the principle that a sovereign people has the right and duty to monitor the acts of every state agency and institution, these being supported by its taxes — and what’s more, that free expression is a right explicitly protected by the Constitution.
On the other hand, the justice system Abella is asking everyone to trust has been as contrary to the rule of law, through — and this is only a recent example — the secretary of justice’s taking the police side in the case of the De Los Santos murder by questioning the credibility of some of the witnesses to it.
At one point, Mr. Duterte’s San Beda College of Law classmate Vitaliano Aguirre II even argued that a murder committed by a drug addict is no different from another committed by a policeman. In the process he revealed his incapacity to distinguish between a killing committed by a private individual and one carried out by a public employee sworn to protect the lives of the people who pay their salaries out of their taxes, and whose monopoly over the legal use of force imposes on him or her the responsibility to use it only in the most extreme cases.
The same Aguirre dismissed complaints over the arrest and detention of Duterte nemesis (she accused him of involvement in the Davao Death Squad murders of alleged criminals including children) former justice secretary and now Senator Leila de Lima by declaring that it would give her a chance to prove her innocence. His declaration was a reversal of the Constitutional presumption of innocence, under the terms of which it is the state’s responsibility to prove her guilt, but it was a legal point apparently beyond his appreciation.
The police themselves are part of the justice system, charged as they are with the tasks of apprehending suspected criminals and building cases against them. But their involvement in such crimes as De Los Santos’ murder and those of some 31 young people and minors including a five-year old and two four-year old children among the 7,000-12,000 they and their surrogate assassins have killed so far, and their highest officials’ justifying those murders as “collateral damage” and “isolated cases” seriously challenge Abella’s and his principal’s newly-found faith in things’ taking their lawful course.
Let’s not forget either that not one of those killed in the course of alleged anti-illegal drugs operations has been found guilty by any court of law, thus their deaths’ being correctly described as EJKs — and, since no one has been called to account for a single case, as tellingly indicative as well of the extent of the police impunity Philippine National Police Director General Ronald de la Rosa dismisses as imaginary.
Rather than an adherent, advocate or even feigned disciple of the rule of law, the Duterte regime, thanks to Mr. Duterte himself and his own henchmen, very early on revealed itself to be a herald of the failing state, among the indicators of which is the breakdown of the justice system and the rule of law.
Human rights violations including torture and massacres; corruption at all levels of government; displacements of the population and humanitarian crises to which the government is unable to adequately respond, such as what’s happening to Marawi residents; widespread impunity, or wrong-doers’ and criminals’ exemption from punishment; and the inability to defend its sovereignty against other countries’ bullying (for example, China’s incursions in the West Philippine sea) are among the other characteristics of failing states evident in the Philippines. All are traceable to the breakdown of the rule of law and the justice system as well as to the consequential rise in police and military power, if not dominance, in government.
The Philippines has long been in the list of weak, failing and fragile states for, among others, the above reasons. It is ranked only above failed African states but below some of its Southeast Asian neighbors. There is no doubt that its ranking will continue to fall under a regime whose adherence to the rule of law has been solely and only recently in words and whose justice system is as severely damaged as it is damaging to the country of our afflictions and its long suffering people. The question of the hour is what civil society, mass and people’s organizations, the Churches, the media, workers’, women’s and farmers’ groups will do about it.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.