Last Sunday, August 21, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told the United Nations to stop “worrying about the bones of criminals piling up.” He defended vigilante killings against UN investigators who condemned Duterte for inciting violence and abusing basic human rights. Duterte also threatened to separate from the UN. Duterte’s support for extrajudicial killings, which the UN calls “effectively a license to kill,” has resulted in a marked increase in violence with hundreds dead in the last few months.
Although the crime rate has increased dramatically since Duterte took office as President of the Philippines, he remains one of the most popular presidents in his country’s history, with approval ratings of over 90%. In the two months since Duterte’s inauguration on June 30, hundreds of people have been killed by unidentified attackers and without further police investigation. Most of the victims are suspected drug dealers, and many of their bodies are left beside signs reading “Don’t follow me. I’m a criminal.”
Nicknamed “the Punisher,” Duterte’s campaign encouraged vigilante justice and promised sweeping reforms to end to the Philippines’ ongoing drug war and government corruption, a platform that resulted in a decisive victory. In Duterte’s inaugural speech, in which he cited both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, he called for people to join him in a new crusade “for a better and brighter tomorrow.” To an outsider, this phrase may sound like generic political rhetoric, but for many Filipinos, Duterte’s call to unity was synonymous with a call to arms.
On national television, Duterte encouraged people to enforce laws themselves, even offering to award medals to citizens who shoot uncooperative drug dealers. “I’m waging a war,” Duterte said. He has also boasted that, during his time as mayor of Davao City, he was involved in vigilante death squads, which resulted in the deaths of 1,700 people. Other times, however, he denies any involvement in such death squads, which are heavily criticized by human rights groups.
Regardless of Duterte’s own involvement in extralegal killings, his stance on the practice is more than accepting. During his campaign, he promised to pardon policemen and soldiers for human rights violations, saying that he will “issue 1,000 pardons a day.” He also claimed that the constitution allows him to pardon himself for crimes including mass murder.
Duterte’s support of vigilante killings is sometimes given with a wink and a nudge. After putting a bounty of three million Philippine pesos ($65,000) on drug lords, he said: “I’m not saying that you kill them, but the order is ‘dead or alive.’” According to National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa, since Duterte took office 712 suspects have been killed in police operations and another 1,067 have been killed by unidentified sources.
Despite the increase in violence, Duterte sits comfortably in the rankings, with a trust rating of 91%. Perhaps his continued popularity, especially among the middle and upper classes who fear rising crime rates, is due to his perceived effectiveness. Duterte’s tough stance on punishing criminals has had an impact on the underground narcotics industry–nearly 600,000 people have surrendered to police in the hopes of avoiding death by vigilante groups.
Duterte also seems to deliver on his promise to end corruption in government. He publically released the names of more than 150 judges, politicians, and military personnel that he claims are involved in the illegal drug industry, calling for these people to surrender themselves to investigations. He ordered their government security personnel to stop protecting them. Otherwise, Duterte threatened, he would “whack them” and dismiss them from the service. Though he recognizes that the list given to him by military and police may not be completely accurate, he says that he has an obligation to release the list to the public nonetheless, in order to show how extensive the drug problem has become.
“There is no due process in my mouth,” Duterte said. “You can’t stop me and I’m not afraid even if you say that I can end up in jail.”
His critics have failed to dampen his domestic approval, partly due to a culture of political impunity in the Philippines. Many Filipinos have become accustomed to political leaders surviving criminal charges, and they see Duterte as just another player in the political arena (albeit one that uses his “skills” for good). For example, former President Joseph Estrada was pardoned by his successor from his life sentence in prison for poaching $80 million. He now lives comfortably as the mayor of Manila with many of his family members in political positions of power. Another example is Congressman Romeo Jalosjos, who won re-election twice from behind bars in a maximum security prison for raping an 11-year-old girl. Similarly, former President Arroyo was re-elected to Congress while under house arrest for corruption charges. She has since then been named the Deputy Speaker of Congress under Duterte’s administration, bringing into question whether Duterte is himself one of the corrupt politicians he has promised to punish.
Duterte’s enthusiastic following also stems from his image as a hard-liner who is set on fixing the broken political system at all costs. His stance on extrajudicial killings was not the only strong rhetoric Duterte used during his campaign. His heavy-handed oratory is comprised of unforgiving–and often inflammatory–statements that promise quick solutions to deep-rooted problems, spurring comparisons between Duterte and U.S. Presidential contender Donald Trump.
One of the most notable controversies of Duterte’s campaign was his comment concerning the rape of an Australian missionary, made in 1989 when he was mayor of Davao City. The incident involved seventeen Australian missionaries being held captive by inmates while they were visiting a jail and it ended with the death of a number of these missionaries, including Jaqueline Hamill, who was also raped.
Duterte recounted the incident to a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally by saying, “Was I mad because she was raped? Yes, that’s one of the reasons. But she really was beautiful. The mayor should have been first.”
Though Duterte’s supporters hail his new policies as necessary change to win the war on crimes and drugs, many human rights groups have condemned his use of violence and his violation of basic human rights. Without due process, the most popular targets may not necessary be those who are guilty but those with dissenting orientations and beliefs, as is often the case in history.
Duterte’s “dictatorship” is characterized by a blatant disregard for traditional checks and balances. He has threated to shut down Congress if it tries to change the Constitution and to evoke martial law when the Chief Justice demanded warrants for people accused by Duterte. When asked how he planned on protecting free press after a journalist was shot dead, Duterte remarked that “freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.”
The United Nations recently joined the list of Duterte critics. UN human rights investigators called on Philippines authorities to immediately stop extrajudicial killings. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard noted that “intentional lethal use of force is only allowed when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life and should not be used for common policing objectives.” The investigators argue that Duterte’s actions violate international laws that require states to protect the right to life and security of everyone in the country regardless of suspected criminal offense.
In Duterte’s profanity-filled response at a news conference, he threatened to leave the UN and call on China and African nations to form another international organization. He suggested that the UN consider the innocent lives lost in the drug war and criticized the UN for being unable to prevent human rights abuses by big powers in Syria and Iraq.
“You know, United Nations, if you can say one bad thing about me, I can give you ten [about you],” he said. “I tell you, you are an inutile [useless]. Because if you are really true to your mandate, you could have stopped all these wars and killing.”
The Palace and the Department of Foreign Affairs later clarified that the Philippines was not considering leaving the UN. Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Junior excused the president’s words by saying Duterte was just “tired, disappointed, hungry.” Duterte later implied his threat against the UN was a joke.
In the same press conference as his criticism of the UN, Duterte also turned his attention to the United States. He questioned why the U.S. has tried to stop atrocities in Syria, and he used the killings of black men by police officers to suggest that the U.S. has its own share of human rights issues. Duterte’s presidency in the last few months has strained the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, countries that historically are close allies. In a statement, United States officials said it was “deeply concerned” by the rising number of deaths and the State Department urged Duterte’s government to respect human rights norms.
Duterte’s greatest campaign promise was that he would curb heinous crimes and illegal drug use in the first six months of his presidency. The question to many is at what cost–the cost of mob justice and human rights violations? But to Duterte, only success matters. “If I fail,” Duterte said, “kill me.”