“If I make it to the presidential palace I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I'll kill you.”
This is what Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said a day before winning the presidential election in 2016 and ascending to the most powerful seat in the nation. Since taking office, Duterte has lived up to this strongman rhetoric. A report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 29 details ongoing human rights abuses inflicted by Duterte’s administration. The briefing describes rising levels of state-sanctioned violence, limitations on Filipinos’ rights to free expression, and alarming expansion of executive power, concluding that “the long-standing overemphasis on public order and national security at the expense of human rights has become more acute in recent years.”
Since his inauguration, Duterte has focused intently on combating national security threats by implementing extreme law enforcement schemes, including a protracted and violent so-called “war on drugs” which has taken the lives of over twelve thousand Filipinos to date. Human rights organizations across the Philippines and the globe have been tracking the growing number of rights violations, particularly against activists and low-income communities, under his watch. Their findings have drawn concern from the global community about the implications of the current administration’s breach of democratic values without consequence.
President Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte was born in 1945 to the former governor of Davao, a province in southern Philippines. In 1988, he was elected mayor of the city of Davao and earned a fearsome reputation for his violent tactics against crime in his city. In his twenty years as mayor, he allegedly dispatched teams of vigilantes to kill suspected drug dealers, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Duterte brought these strongman tactics to his campaign for president, boasting of his success at turning Davao into one of the Philippines' safest cities. Upon election, he carried his mayoral legacy with him into the presidency, appointing his police chief in Davao to the position of chief of the Philippine National Police and launched the project “Double Barrel” to fight illegal drug activity throughout the nation.
Since Duterte took office in 2016, Project Double Barrel has become a cover for arbitrary state-sanctioned violence. According to the June UN report, police have conducted over forty thousand drug search operations in citizens’ homes as part of the campaign. Only 1.2 percent of these raids involved a search or arrest warrant, violating the due process rights for Filipino citizens bestowed by the country’s constitution. The Philippine Drug and Enforcement Agency estimated that around 5,600 people were killed by police between July 2016 and June 2020, but even these figures may be deceptively small: Filipino government data indicates that Duterte’s administration has committed at least 8,663 extrajudicial killings during the same period, although human rights organizations like the UN believe that number to be higher. Both government actors and police officers have acted with extraordinary impunity under Duterte, with just a single case out of thousands resulting in criminal charges for officers. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council reports that the vast majority of the government’s crimes have not been independently investigated, further de-incentivizing the state to uphold its own violent crimes laws.
The Philippines’ History of Authoritarianism: A Brief Democracy?
While Duterte’s administration has marked an era of incredible violence and unrest, this is not the first time that the Philippines has undergone a drastic breach of citizens rights. In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos began what would become a twenty-year authoritarian regime, one that presented a major challenge to the nation’s established limits to presidential power. In the course of his presidency, Marcos curtailed free speech by jailing many of his political opponents while rewarding his loyal supporters with lucrative government positions. He established martial law in his second term, claiming that it was a necessary measure to curb the threat of communism. This allowed him to write his own laws, which he did to expand the length and limits of his authority, including taking over the courts and the closing private media organizations in order to delegitimize opposition. His overspending on government infrastructure caused the economy—the second-most prosperous in East Asia when he took office—to shrink, creating an economic crisis that increased unemployment and caused the citizens’ average income to plummet. Until its end, Marcos’ regime spread fear throughout the country, setting the stage for outrage to build among its citizens.
Years of fear and discord came to a head in 1986 as millions marched in opposition to Marcos’ re-election—yet another corrupt victory—this time made possible through the assassination of popular opposition leader, Benigno Aquino Jr. As these protests mounted, Marcos was forced to flee, ushering in a new era of political freedoms for Filipino citizens and heralding a bright future: Corazon Aquino was declared the true winner and first female president whose leadership was marked by the restoration of democratic norms. Martial law lifted and a new constitution drafted, human rights protections were quickly enshrined in a new Bill of Rights.
However, beneath the surface of Aquino’s democratic rule, Marcos’ authoritarian infrastructure remained. Under the guise of peace, the military groups that thrived under Marcos still operated undercover, tormenting activists and opposition leaders to foment conflict under Aquino. In part, this unrest can be attributed to Aquino’s soft approach in dealing with Marcos’ accomplices during his brutal reign. Her strategy of reconciliation toward Marcos’ government networks allowed similar authoritarian figures to remain in power, many of whom took office after her retirement.
Some Backlash, Little Accountability
Over thirty years later, Duterte has taken up the mantle of a repressive ruler whose legacy, though briefly out of sight under Aquino, was never fully uprooted. Duterte has made a habit of praising militia groups and encouraging violence on a national scale, in April giving a televised speech declaring, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military [...] that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”
His forceful messaging has raised alarms among the international community, particularly given his disregard for reports of violence all over his country. To date, the government has not released a comprehensive or complete reporting system for killings carried out by members of the public or the State. Efforts to bring such atrocities to light—such as “Rappler,” an online platform critical of Duterte spearheaded by journalist Maria Ressler in 2012—have been met with vicious threats and possible imprisonment. Ressler herself has spent thousands of dollars on bail after being targeted by the government for crimes like tax fraud and libel. Compounding these threats to free speech and press, this past July, Duterte signed an anti-terrorism bill that defines “terrorism” with a generous scope and little specificity, a move that will likely give the government the grounds to prosecute even the slightest forms of public criticism.
For all Duterte has done to silence critics within his country, it has not been enough to smother the outrage that exists within certain opposition groups. This summer, thousands of protestors from different left-wing activist groups gathered in advance of Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address to call attention to his abusive war on drugs and human rights violations. Two years earlier, thousands of women took to the streets to protest Duterte’s frequent misogynistic comments and incitement of sexual violence against women. These mass demonstrations are the main way that opponents are able to share their frustrations with relative anonymity and less chance of physical or legal harm.
Still, public support for Duterte’s administration seems high. While many Filipino citizens do not approve of Duterte’s insulting rhetoric or the extrajudicial killings carried out by his administration, a majority of them nevertheless stand firm in their support of his presidency. According to an October national survey, Duterte’s public approval rating is remarkably high—in the 90s—despite his concerning expansion of power in response to the pandemic and shrinking economy, a metric that may point to the strong appeal of his forceful leadership style.
As the Philippines nears an election in 2022, the country will again be forced to reckon with the results of the brutal expansion of executive authority as they did in the sixties. And, if Duterte’s popularity ratings hold, his allies are poised to succeed him when he decides to step down, a prospect that further raises the stakes in stemming the rise of authoritarian leadership. While the UN report makes valuable suggestions about how the Philippines can claw back its democracy, the country’s struggle to re-establish democratic norms after Marcos’ regime indicates that implementing these changes will require committed action on the part of the public and the next administration—regardless of who heads it—to uproot the infrastructures of executive privilege and legal ambiguity under which authoritarianism has thrived.
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