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The terrifying lessons of the Philippines’ vigilante president
Every morning in
the Philippines, a handful of bodies are found littering the streets.
Their faces are often covered in black plastic tape. Sometimes there are
signs of torture. Usually, they have been shot in the head. Few bother
police – they are usually suspected of being responsible. No
one, frankly, should be surprised that it is happening. The country’s
democratically elected leader, after all, was elected promising to do
just this, cracking down on what he has described as a “drug menace” in the country.
one world leader exemplifies some of the more alarming trends taking
place in politics this decade, it is Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.
His election – and the policies he has pursued since entering office –
represent a comprehensive rejection of decades, if not centuries, of
hard-won moves toward respect for human rights and the rule of law.
legal niceties, Duterte and those around him argue, have simply given
criminals and others too much space. It’s the sort of sentiment that has
sometimes also found its place in Donald Trump’s campaign – the U.S.
president-elect talked, after all, of getting “really nasty” against
Islamic State. In the Philippines, however, the death toll is already
believed to have run to more than 5000. Of these, 2000 were shot in armed confrontations with the police – with 3000 more suffering extrajudicial executions.
number [of drug addicts] is quite staggering and scary,” Duterte said
in his inaugural State of the Nation Address. “I have to slaughter these
idiots for destroying my country.”
The Filipino leader has been in power barely six months. He has another five and a half years until he next faces the poll.
his rhetoric can gain traction among voters should not itself be a
surprise – the idea of vigilante justice clearly still has an appeal, if
only evidenced by the way in which it remains such a common Hollywood
theme. As mayor of Davao City for more than two decades, the Filipino
president reveled in such imagery – he was often referred to as “The
Punisher” or “Duderte Harry”, the latter a reference to the cinematic
vigilante “Dirty Harry” played by Clint Eastwood.
mayor, Duterte was repeatedly accused of involvement in death squads
targeting both criminals and political enemies. Earlier this year, a man
claiming to be a former associate accused the president of taking part
in some killings and ordering others, including having a man fed to a
crocodile in 2007. Nothing was ever proven, however –
and in those days, Duterte denied direct involvement. An official
inquiry published at the beginning of this year – and, unsurprisingly,
heavily criticized – said it found no evidence of the reported death
squad killings or Duterte’s own direct involvement.
Duterte took the presidency in June, however, he has been much more
outspoken – as well as willing to take responsibility for what some
estimate could be several thousand deaths. This week, he openly
threatened to target human rights activists whom he accused of getting
in the way of the purge.
tactics appear to have cost the Philippines its long-running alliance
with the United States – at least under the presidency of Barack Obama.
(The Filipino leader has said he hopes to have a rather better
relationship with Trump.) Duterte has talked openly of seeking alliances
with Russia and China instead; both countries are seen as more likely
to let the Philippines do whatever it wishes when it comes to internal
clearly an outlier. For now, however, his approach is serving him
relatively well when it comes to Filipino domestic politics – according
to one survey, he remains one of the most trusted leaders in Southeast
he is also part of a wider trend – one that may well be accelerating.
There have always, of course, been leaders who have made a virtue of
“doing what it takes” to restore order and have been relatively happy to
get a reputation for sometimes brutal tactics, even if they publicly
President Paul Kagame, for example, has always said his country needs to
sometimes take a tough line with those who try to destabilize it if
Rwanda is to avoid a repeat of the 1994 genocide. Sri Lanka’s
then-leaders used sometimes brutal measures to end the civil war with
Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. After the chaos of the 1990s, Russian
President Vladimir Putin has ruthlessly traded off his reputation for
toughness, particularly in the long-running insurgency in Chechnya,
where Moscow’s forces have long been accused of unrestricted use of
force and widespread rights abuses.
of those leaders, however, have always sought to deny outright
responsibility – or at least maintain a degree of deniability – when it
comes to unquestioned acts of extrajudicial murder. By being willing to
make it so explicitly a tool of government policy, Duterte has
significantly moved the goalposts of what might be deemed to be
acceptable in international affairs.
he has been criticized, he has been outspoken in his response, even
threatening to leave the United Nations and join a new group – perhaps
Russian and Chinese-backed – that would also include African governments
keen to push back on some international human rights demands. Earlier
this year, South Africa and Burundi both announced they would
quit the International Criminal Court, set up in response to the
genocides of the 1990s, but which critics say has been selective in
which conflicts it chooses to investigate.
These trends are also, in some
respects at least, clearly evident in the West. Trump talked openly of
waterboarding and targeting the families of suspected militants during
his campaign, although it remains uncertain whether he will pursue such
policies in office. Far right European political parties and columnists
have periodically called for a much tougher approach to migration,
suggesting this might sometimes include the use of live ammunition to
maintain potentially overwhelmed borders.
this represents is an unraveling of the rules-based system – and in
many respects the essential concept of basic human rights – enshrined in
the United Nations charter signed by most progressive nations after
World War Two.
commitment was always imperfect – and frequently desperately
hypocritically imposed. Still, it has rarely been as pushed back against
as it is in the Philippines today.
year may well see the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
reassert control in Syria and the unraveling of the unsuccessful
U.S.-backed policy of supporting ineffectual opposition fighters. The
United States and Europe will likely see a considerable political
reaction against what had been seen as relatively fundamental rights,
particularly when it comes to asylum and freedom of movement.
of those things are unnecessarily unreasonable. What the Philippines
reminds us, though, is just how short a journey it might be to really
tear up some of the most basic rules which had been seen as underpinning
a civilized society. Worse still, it can even be popular.