Commentary: The terrifying lessons of the Philippines’ vigilante president

COMMENTARY | Fri Dec 2, 2016 | 12:57am EST

Reuters

By Peter Apps

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.

If 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.

Such 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.

“The 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.

That 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.

As 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.

Since 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.

Such 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 matters.

Duterte is 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 Asia.

But 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 deny them.

Rwandan 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.

Most 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.

Where 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.

What 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.

That 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.

Next 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.

None 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.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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