The central paradox of failing and failed states is their capacity to inflict the gravest harm on their perceived enemies, their own people, and on humanity at large, while being weak when it comes to protecting the innocent or observing their own laws. Such states may be paper tigers, but they do have claws and teeth.

Philippines is not yet exhibit A in the gallery of failed and failing states. In the contest for that distinction are such African countries as Rwanda, Somalia, the Sudan, the Republic of the Congo. In Asia, among the candidates, but still far behind these sub-Saharan states, are Burma and Sri Lanka.

In failed and failing states humanity is under siege from rampaging warlords, criminal gangs and other marauders their governments can’t or won’t control. The same governments can’t provide even minimum protection to women and children and other vulnerable groups as well as, in Africa, the millions at risk of contracting HIV-AIDS.

In a rare moment of candidness, and, we hope, with at least a grain of shame, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita declared last week that the Arroyo regime can’t stop the killing of journalists — or for that matter, of anyone else.

By telling the truth for once, Ermita has let the cat — or the paper tiger — out of the bag about the best-kept secret of the year: that under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s tentative watch the Philippines, despite the regime’s “Strong Republic” nonsense, is rapidly approaching failed state status.

“We don’t have full control of the situation on the ground, mortals as we are,” said former Marcos general Ermita, when asked last week how 30 journalists could have been killed in Maguindanao last November 23 together with 27 other men and women.

That it can’t prevent murders, assassinations and such collateral damage as the killing of several people who just happened to be passing by the Maguindanao killing fields last week, doesn’t mean the regime can’t murder whom it wants. Apparently it can, if we’re to go by the toll in extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations it has inflicted since 2001 on political and human rights activists, priests and nuns, local officials, judges, lawyers and anyone else guilty of exposing and resisting corruption, and fighting injustice and the many other ills that afflict Philippine society under the malignant rule of a rapacious political elite.

Since alleged President and soon-to-be-Congresswoman Arroyo came to power in 2001, some 1,100 men, women and even children have been summarily killed (the exquisitely ironic Philippine term for it is “salvaged”), 204 forcibly disappeared, another 1,000 tortured, and nearly 2,000 illegally arrested. Scores of others have been the victims of various forms of human rights violations by the police, the military, state-sponsored paramilitary groups, the private security guards of plantations and haciendas, and — oh yes — the warlord armies that infest this archipelago of tears.

If the above is a demonstration that the regime still has teeth, include as a demonstration of its weakness the slaughter of November 23, for which it has earned the contempt not only of human rights groups and media advocacy organizations all over the world, but of much of humanity as well.

That singular event — distinguished not only for its brutality, but also for being the worst attack on journalists in all of human history — was after all the result of a self-serving policy of coddling and arming the regime’s warlord allies, whose territories have become, in a parody of decentralization, feudal fiefs over which the central government has lost control.

But Ermita wasn’t about to admit that the Ampatuans — his boss’ political allies and also her dear friends–have not only gained ascendancy in Maguindanao thanks to her, but have also become the most affluent clan in one of the country’s poorest provinces because the regime needed them during the 2004 and 2007 elections, and will continue to need them in future ones. It also needs them to keep the Moro separatists at bay and to see to it that the poverty they preside over doesn’t morph into further rebellion. In what was rightly described by reporters present as a pathetic excuse, Ermita instead went on to say that the regime could not prevent the November 23 massacre because “We’re only human.”

It’s an attempt at explanation straight out of the culture of evasion, and the hoary and near-universal assumption that to be human is to be powerless — and to be stupid as well as brutal, to be criminal as well as violent. Being “only human” is also among the most convenient of excuses for the commission of the most egregious offenses, often against humanity itself.

Was the Arroyo regime, which can’t keep order in the country over which it is desperately trying to retain power, being merely human when it put in place the policy of extrajudicial killings that has encouraged various groups including its warlord allies to do the same? And were the Ampatuans too being “only human” when they tried to prevent their political rival from registering as a candidate for governor in the May 2010 elections? To say yes is to assume that the lust for power, greed, and the capacity for mayhem, violence and murder are intrinsic to humanity, and can thus be explained away and even forgiven.

And yet to be human is above all else to possess the capacity to rise above the violent appetites and instincts that blur the distinction between human and brute. In today’s failing and failed states what we see being demonstrated instead, and by the very forces that are in power, is the exact opposite. It’s not happening in Africa alone. The Philippine state is also likely to go farther down that road. After all, it can’t do anything about enforcing its own laws, and protecting its own people. Its officials are too busy being “only human.”


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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