by the Philippine Human Rights Information Center

Part I. The Rise of Duterte and the Erosion of  a Human Rights Culture

“To talk about Rodrigo Roa Duterte is to talk about human rights.”

Specifically, that Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 16th president of the Philippines, has managed to overturn the gains of the human rights movement painstakingly earned since the restoration of democracy in 1986.

In his two years of ruling, the man elected by 16 million Filipinos has successfully positioned a large number of the populace to an ideologically hazy but entirely antagonistic view of human rights.

Just how this happened is still subject of ongoing analysis, but here is what we can definitively conclude: the president of the Philippines is the biggest threat to human rights in the Philippines since Martial Law. 

Change Has Come

Coming off of the neoliberal plutocracy that was Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III’s presidency, Duterte dominated the 2016 presidential campaign on a crystal-clear projection of a change narrative. A vote for Duterte is a vote for change: A Duterte presidency shall mark the end of elite “Imperial Manila” politics, of petty and large-scale government corruption, and of street crime and illegal drugs.

Mass support materialized in the form of a definitive six million lead in the 2016 presidential elections over administration candidate Manuel “Mar” Roxas II. It was clear that Duterte’s bold message of change couched in uncouth language and an anti-elite stance resonated with voters exhausted with the failed promises of post-EDSA regimes.

“Change is coming,” he said. That change, it turns out, means a country besieged by extreme violence and widespread human rights violations at a rate and intensity that challenges even Martial Law’s darkest days. Change, under Duterte’s rule, means a boldfaced endorsement for abandoning the most basic state accountabilities for human rights. Change, under Duterte’s so-called war on drugs, means 23,000 deaths and as yet unaccounted number of gross human rights violations. Change, under Duterte’s violent gaze, means further entrenchment of impunitywholesale erosion of a human rights culture , and worsening poverty.

The Philippine democracy is in a state of regress. This is the only conclusion to be made when you have a government that is brazen in its defiance of the rule of law, willful in its dismantling of legitimate opposition, bold in its attacks on the press and persistent in its efforts to destabilize checks and balances of power and authority.

Traditional notions of democratic breakdown conjure images of hostile takeovers of government leadership. And yet, the Philippines is among an increasingly long list of countries throughout the world that is experiencing democratic decay, a “creeping deterioration of democratic rule” as opposed to a rapid democratic breakdown due to a coup or foreign invasion.

The election of President Duterte is both a symptom of this democratic decay and an impetus for a sustained and deliberate continuation of it. Like most democratically elected authoritarian leaders, he now seeks to undermine the very structure that gave him power.

Two years into the Duterte presidency, we see a worrying slide towards an authoritarian Philippines. In the next three sections, we will look into the strategies, tools, and consequences of this authoritarian experiment as it plays out in the bloody theater that is Duterte’s Philippines. Finally, we propose a plan of action for the people—what can human rights organizations, advocates, and citizens do to respond to Duterte’s anti-human rights project?

Part II. The Road to Authoritarian Rule: Strategies and Tools

The socioeconomic and political environment that has paved the road to authoritarian rule was created and institutionalized by the Duterte government through its reliance on several key strategies and tools.

Kill Policies and State-sponsored Violence

The “kill policies” advocated by the Duterte government are used to galvanize the erosion of human rights culture. These include the bills on the restoration of the death penalty and those on the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility of children from 15 to 9 years of age.

The President is a firm believer that the death penalty will not only deter criminality. He also holds the view that death is the most appropriate punishment for both those involved in the drug trade and those engaged in terrorism. On the other hand, children’s involvement in crimes, including illegal drug trade, can be best dealt with by imprisonment or letting them rot in jail as a way of teaching them a lesson.

In his public statements, he classifies drug users, pushers and peddlers, criminals, and even bystanders as unwanted members of society, and suggests that their right to life can be revoked if they choose to remain as such. Likewise, rural communities continue to suffer as militarization in their lands persists to threaten their lives and livelihood. How these policies play out in the city streets and in the countryside show that these policies are only directed against the poor and the marginalized.

While the president’s supporters may insist that these kill policies demonstrate an ironclad political will, the poor know the real story. As the primary victims of the so-called war on drugs, they contend with the daily reality of bloodshed, violence, and fear. The poor’s engagement in the drug trade makes them the most vulnerable targets of President Duterte’s kill policies. Many studies have already established the causality between poverty and involvement in the drug trade, whether one is a drug user (tagged as drug addicts in the Philippines), a drug pusher, or a drug courier. Even former Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) chairman Dionisio Santiago asserted it by repeating that drug problem is largely rooted in the country’s poverty issue

Further, it is more or less a sociological truism that drug addiction among the poor is caused by the mental states developed from being in a prolonged state of poverty, with drug pushing as a viable, and therefore, appealing source of income for many. None of these issues mattered when the brutal campaign against illegal drugs was launched. Just days after President Duterte was sworn into office, media reports flooded in, documenting the deaths of dozens of Filipinos. A July 5, 2016 report from Al Jazeera, for example, tallied at least 45 deaths during Duterte’s first four days in office.

Drug-related killings have been so normalized that they have practically become daily segments in news reports. David et al.’s (2018) total number of extrajudicial deaths gathered from online media reports between May 2016 and September 2017 does not even reach half of what human rights groups estimate, which is that there have been 13,000 drug war-related killings in the same time period. As of July 2018, two years after President Duterte came to power, the estimates have already reached more than 23,000. 

The killing spree in urban poor communities reveals the lie that is President Duterte’s pro-poor posturing. Under the guise of anti-crime and anti-drug campaigns, his kill policies have only proven that he is nothing but a populist leader who would not hesitate to condone human rights violations for political brownie points.

Distortion of Human Rights and Vilification of Human Rights Defenders

President Duterte and his allies within and outside of government have been tremendously successful in controlling the narrative on human rights. Their virulent anti-human rights rhetoric was already in place during the election campaign, and it even got worse once Duterte took office.

Their biggest victory, arguably, is in successfully mischaracterizing human rights as being a hindrance to national development. In rhetoric and in action, President Duterte and his supporters have led many Filipinos to believe that national development is possible only through a violent, rule of law-defying, human rights-violating campaign against illegal drugs and its users. They were able to calcify Filipinos’ exasperation with urban crime into a successful campaign of dehumanization of criminals, particularly those purportedly driven to crime because of drug use.

Similarly, the Duterte government has viewed human rights defenders as “enemies of the State.” They have been labeled as “protectors of criminals, rapists and killers” and “obstructionists.” In 2016, the President said: “The world will never be safe as long as [these] human rights groups are there to protect and side with criminals, murderers, rapists, drug pushers, smugglers, robbers and thieves.” 

The Duterte administration further revealed its disdain for—and perhaps fear of—its critics and members of progressive movements when it declared more than 600 individuals as terrorists. On February 21, 2018, the Department of Justice’s Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Peter Ong filed a petition before the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC), declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison, peace negotiator Luis Jalandoni, former lawmaker and leftist leader Satur Ocampo, and UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and around 600 others as terrorists. This comes after the peace talks between CPP-NPA-NDF and the government of the Republic of the Philippines had crumbled in November 2017, prompting progressive groups to intensify their opposition against President Duterte’s regime.

The terror tagging of progressive groups and human rights defenders was followed by the granting of subpoena power to police officials, which was seen as a prelude to a more intensified crackdown

Not content with endangering the safety of progressives and the people and communities associated with them, the President’s spokesperson Harry Roque said that human rights groups may have been “unwitting tools” to destabilize the government by receiving funding from drug lords. No evidence was presented to prove this irresponsible claim.

Indeed, the distortion of human rights and vilification of human rights defenders (HRDs) has been so constant that unfounded accusations and personal attacks against HRDs are routinely propagated in both online and offline platforms. This has led to increasingly difficult working conditions for HRDs, who now routinely have to contend with harassment and disparagement from the president’s supporters.

Suppression of Dissent and the Systematic Dismantling of Democratic Guarantees

The current administration is one that has little tolerance, if not complete abhorrence, of criticism and opposition, and silencing and suppression of dissent has been a strategy to cow people to subservience and passivity. To accomplish this, threats, harassment and disinformation have been employed. Members of the legal opposition like Senator Leila de Lima and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, are among the early victims of the administration’s campaign to rid itself of so-called “obstructionists” and “troublemakers” with the filing of trumped up charges and removal from their government positions. Meanwhile, progressive church leaders and activists have experienced red-baiting and have been vilified.

The systematic dismantling of democratic guarantees is another strategy used by the government to strengthen the prevailing environment. Bribery, rewards, and tokenism have dominated democratic institutions like the Philippine Congress, Philippine National Police, local government units and other government agencies. Behaviors of government officials that demonstrate docility, subordination, and obedience are applauded and rewarded by the President because these are viewed as indicators of loyalty.

Foremost in this dismantling of democratic guarantees is his control over Congress. With a supermajority, President Duterte seeks to weaponize the legislative branch to enable his policy positions and attack his enemies. Indeed, the supermajority proved a powerful force for setting up Duterte’s authoritarian project.

Attacking legitimate opposition—a well-worn tactic of would-be authoritarians—has also become a hallmark of Duterte’s two-year-old rule. The attacks on Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator De Lima, along with verbal tirades and harassment levied against then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, paint a picture of a President who is unable to accommodate legitimate opposition and critique. That his response is to drive these representatives of government—all at high positions and serving in institutions that have traditionally functioned as guards against unchecked executive power—into difficult, untenable positions and even outright disgrace reveal President Duterte’s despotic impulses. That these officials also all happen to be women—and have all been subjected to highly misogynistic rhetoric from the president and his allies—show that this wannabe strongman is at heart intimidated by a show of legitimate feminine power.

Further strengthening the state security agenda is the 2018 passage of Republic Act 11055 or the Philippine Identification System Law. RA 11055 calls on Filipinos eighteen (18) years of age and above to register personal information into the Filipino Identification System (FilSys) / Philippine Identification System (PhilSys).

Proponents of the National ID System maintain that the law will help to speed up government’s delivery of basic social services to Filipinos, to prevent crimes using the database information of the majority of its citizens, and to expedite transactions in the private sector.

Opponents of the law on the other hand, argue against it as a potential tool for surveillance and privacy rights violations. A national ID system gives government unprecedented access to a huge source of its citizens’ personal data.

This worry is not unfounded. After all, in 2016, the data of around 55 million registered voters were leaked following a hack on the Commission on Election’s (COMELEC) database. Passport details of around 1.3 million Filipino voters and 15.8 million fingerprint records were included in the leak. This puts great mistrust on the capability of the government to protect its citizens’ privacy, and in effect, their security.

Indeed, privacy violations usually precede grave human rights abuses. Any government with the ability to keep track of its population via an ID system could also resort to more oppressive activities. A national ID system may also pave the way for normalizing state surveillance. The information gathered from citizens may be manipulated in order to serve State interests, which as history has proven, are not always in line with the people’s interests.

Those who voice out their dissent and opposing views of the government may also be targeted and attacked through their own information. It is not outside the realm of possibility that it may become a tool of State-sponsored harassment and profiling, curtailing dissent and contributing to the further shrinking of civic spaces.

While the government may insist that none of these scenarios will transpire, the law’s true test is in its implementation. Ordinarily, we would give the government the benefit of the doubt, but considering this regime’s authoritarian character and disregard for the rule of law, no honest consideration of its human rights record would allow for support of this law.

Populism and Disinformation

Photo from Wiki Commons

Projecting oneself as a populist leader through the formulation and/or implementation of programs and policies that are said to be “sensitive and responsive to peoples’ needs” is another strategy of the current dispensation to be able to muster the widest support of the population, particularly the poor and marginalized.

The so-called war on drugs, which has been justified as a means of protecting ordinary Filipinos against criminals, rapists, and killers; attacks against the elites and oligarchs; the use of invectives and foul language; even the passage of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA 10931), have all been designed and intended to depict a “pro-people, pro-poor” character of the current government. It has perfected the scheme of playing with peoples’ emotions and sowing intrigues to perpetuate divisions in society between pro-government versus anti-Duterte, ‘yellow’, and privileged classes.

Perhaps no other Duterte policy demonstrated his populist brand of leadership than the signing of RA 10931 in 2017. By guaranteeing free tuition and fees for college students enrolled in “112 state universities and colleges (SUCs), 78 local universities and colleges (LUCs), and all technical-vocation education and training (TVET) programs” under TESDA beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, the administration has earned much praise and gratitude from students and their parents.

Indeed, the law is a milestone in the government’s record for fulfilling Filipinos’ right to education. However, a close examination of the law’s fiscal implications reveals it for what it is—a shortsighted, unsustainable, purely populist act that may in fact cause more harm than good.

Youth activists condemned the law and its shortcomings. Kabataan Partylist Representative Sarah Elago, for instance, noted that it only covers 1.3 million students, ignoring over two million more students not enrolled in public higher education institutions, and three million more Filipinos of college age but are currently out of school. 

Moreover, President Duterte’s own economic managers have opposed the law’s passage from the jump, saying that the tuition-free policy will mostly benefit non-poor students who populate SUCs. They also pointed out that a possible exodus from private higher education institutions (HEIs) to SUCs may occur, placing even more pressure on already overburdened SUCs. There is also the important issue of sustainability; the government’s resources simply cannot handle the budgetary pressures of an entirely tuition-free policy.

A review of the 2018 Budget of the Duterte administration by the think tank Institute for Leadership, Empowerment and Democracy (iLEAD), further invites scrutiny on the administration’s seriousness in addressing the plight of students.

Following the 2017 passage of the Free College Tuition Law, one could reasonably expect that the education budget would reflect a marked increase. After all, a landmark policy such as this would mean an avalanche of budget infusions into the national government’s education budget. iLEAD’s review, however, shows that the education budget for 2018 grew a paltry 1.7% from the 2017 figure. Looking at the budgetary big picture, iLEAD concludes that “the 2018 National Budget, despite growing 12 percent from 2017’s, does not reflect any major policy shift.” More than any public pronouncement, the budget numbers reveal the truth of the Duterte administration’s blinkered approach to education.

Furthermore, iLEAD’s analysis also makes room to note that whatever gains Filipino families with college-age children might have from a free tuition policy will be cancelled out by higher taxes on basic consumer goods imposed by TRAIN’s implementation. The picture that emerges, says iLEAD, is that “economic and budget policies are disjointed, populist programs are hastily planned and funded at the expense of clashing with other priorities, and inflation only takes away what the government gives the people in their one hand.”

The Duterte government has effectively mobilized its army of trolls and rabid supporters with the constant flooding of social media with their declarations of support, justifications and defense of highly controversial and unacceptable pronouncements, statements, and actions of the President on various issues in society.

The President’s social media machinery has been a major vehicle in the government’s disinformation campaign with the dissemination of lies, half-truths, and fake news to the general public, and even to the world. It has likewise been a tool in sugarcoating projects, programs, and policies of the government as part of its efforts to present itself as “a government of and for the people.”

Meanwhile, the government has embarked on a campaign to attack and discredit mainstream mass media outfits which have criticized and questioned certain policies and actions of the President and his administration. This is illustrated in the case of the revocation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of Rappler’s license to operate for allegedly violating the Constitution and the Anti-Dummy Law, which is the first such case ever to be filed by the SEC. The President also threatened to block the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise, which is due to expire in 2020, after accusing the television company of failing to air a campaign ad prior to the 2016 presidential elections, and not returning the money paid for the said advertisement. The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) has gone through a similar experience when the President called the attention of its owners to stop attacking his administration or else he would fight the owners of the newspaper over the Mile Long property in Makati.

Federalism and Charter Change

To further legitimize and institutionalize the current environment created by the administration, charter change and the shift to federalism are being pursued and advocated by the Duterte government.

A major criticism against federalism is that this will pave the way towards legitimizing strongman rule and institutionalizing political dynasties and warlordism based on the present realities in many regions of the country. A disturbing provision of the draft Federal Constitution is Article XV on National Economy and Patrimony. While maintaining that lands, natural resources, and public utilities should be owned and controlled by Filipinos and corporations with at least 60% of its equity owned by Filipino citizens, the draft Federal Constitution gives Congress the power to change these provisions on ownership by law.

The draft Federal Constitution likewise includes a provision adding a mechanism for the issuance and use of a surveillance warrant. This provision essentially legitimizes State surveillance—a highly intrusive process that opens the floodgates of abuse of civil liberties—as a regular, ordinary State activity. State surveillance, by its nature, is difficult to monitor, and the right to privacy, enshrined in the Constitution and described in detail across various national laws, can easily be compromised. Furthermore, challenging the State on the grounds of the right to privacy violations remains difficult because the government agencies collecting information on citizens may not be inclined to disclose the full extent of their activities, often by hiding under the excuse of protecting national security interests.

Given the Duterte administration’s documented use of surveillance in support of its brutal campaign against illegal drugs, there is no reasonable ground to further empower the Duterte administration to collect information on citizens.

Part III. What Duterte Has Wrought: Impacts and Consequences

All these strategies and tools employed by the government to reinforce an environment characterized by the erosion of a human rights culture, weakened democratic institutions, persistence of social injustice and inequality, and pervasiveness of internal armed conflict and political instability, have contributed to the institutionalization of impunity and corrosion of the rule of law.

Entrenched Impunity and Corrosion of Rule of Law

Instead of holding State agents accountable for human rights violations perpetrated in the context of the “war on drugs,” the President himself has assured them protection and freedom from prosecution for their actions. He continues to condone and even encourage members of the police force in the excessive and indiscriminate use of violence in the conduct of the “war on drugs” resulting in the illegal arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death of alleged drug users and dealers in urban poor communities.

The culture of impunity has allowed State agents to continue perpetrating human rights violations free from any accountability In fact, the President has even gone to the extent of doubling the salaries of the PNP and AFP as a reward for a “job well done” in the government’s “war on drugs” and “war against terrorism.” Meanwhile, victims of the “war on drugs,” particularly the victims of EJKs, have been denied access to justice. To this day, families of EJK victims, children referred to as “collateral damage,”and even those admitted by law enforcement agents as killed because of mistaken identity, have not seen a single State agent prosecuted, let alone made accountable for their actions. They continue to go scot-free and enjoy the protection of the State.

Climate of Fear and Silence

Consequently, the culture of impunity has created an environment characterized by fear and silence. The “war on drugs” has transformed urban poor communities into “ghost towns” and their residents into a populace mum to injustices and repression within their midst. Meanwhile, victims of human rights violations engulfed by terror have opted to abandon their homes to escape punitive actions of unscrupulous law enforcement agents.

Even so, a significant section of the middle and upper middle classes continues to remain indifferent to things happening in society as evidenced by the lack of protest or opposition. Although silence can mean many things, it essentially indicates acceptance and approval of the state of affairs.

Worsening Incidence of Poverty, Hunger, Joblessness, and Derogation of ESC Rights

The dismal state of economic, social, and cultural rights manifested in the worsening situation of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and homelessness can be attributed to the implementation of a national development policy and program (2017-2022) following a neo-liberal framework. While it may be true that every Filipino aspires for a “matatag, maginhawa at panatag na buhay” as gathered during the regional consultations and focus group discussions conducted by planning agencies nationwide, the aspiration is far from being realistic and attainable by 2040.

This is because of the snail-paced changes experienced by the country in the areas of decent employment and income, food and nutrition, health, and housing. Moreover, based on the rate of environmental degradation taking place in different parts of the archipelago, it will not be surprising if a decade from now, a big percentage of the country’s agricultural lands and forests, fisheries and marine resources, mineral resources, flora and fauna, would have been destroyed and/or dominated by big multinational corporations.

With national development equated with increased global competitiveness, capital investment, revenues and profits, the government has implemented policies and projects, the most recent of which is the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law, which has caused a deterioration in the incomes and quality of life of ordinary Filipinos.

Much of the tax breaks of the first TRAIN law were targeted for wage-earners. While it was sold to the public as a means to dissolve income taxes for many workers, thereby gaining public support, it also very transparently moves the bulk of the tax burden to value-added taxes, particularly on products such as fuel, sweetened drinks, and vehicles, as well as alcohol and tobacco products.

Meant as the primary means to raise funds for the administration’s ambitious infrastructure spending, this was essentially a tax increase on those who do not earn from wages or salaries such as small business owners, farmers, fisherfolk, and those in the informal sector.

While the Duterte administration insists that TRAIN’s effects on inflation are minimal, the point of the matter is that inflation is here, and here to stay as thinktank IBON says. According to IBON, commodity price hikes would persist for the next three years when additional taxes on oil products will take effect.

IBON also reported that the poor who live below the family living wage of PHP 30,000 bear the worst of the price increases. Fisherfolk for example, have to spend an average of PHP 1,335 more per month for diesel for 20 days of fishing.

In fact, since the start of 2018, IBON estimates that runaway inflation has eroded the incomes of the “poorest 60 million Filipinos” leading to “losses of anywhere from Php 993 to as much as Php 2,715” for each Filipino household.

For most workers, the twin effects of TRAIN and inflation have led to an erosion of purchasing power and continued stagnation of wages. While IBON cites official labor force data that the number of employed increased under Duterte, these Filipino workers were increasingly working in insecure and low-paying jobs. Data from IBON shows that underemployment rate was 18% last January 2018 which was an increase of almost 2% from a year before, while the population of part-time workers are now at 14.7 million or 9.3% of the labor force.

Part IV. The People’s Response

Confronted by a government which primarily relies on the use of State violence, condones a climate of impunity, disregards human rights and the rule of law, fabricates and disseminates lies, and abhors opposition and dissent, human rights defenders face a daunting challenge and task.

  1. Mass education and information work on human rights
    • Countering distortion of HR and disinformation campaigns
    • Enhancing capacities in HR claiming and defense
    • Building a HR culture
  2. Organizing
    • Strengthening of grassroots and sectoral organizations
    • Formation and capacity-building of HRDS in communities, schools, workplaces
    • Formation of broad alliances, coalitions, linkages and cooperation
  3. Mobilizing communities and sectors
    • Monitoring and documentation, and gathering of evidence
    • Conduct of campaigns, mobilizations and mass protest actions
    • Conduct of rights-claiming initiatives by communities/sectors
    • Conduct of lobby and solidarity work (Local & international)
  4. Protection of HRDs and victims of HRVs
    • Institution of protection measures and programs
    • Capacity-building in safety and security management (Physical and digital)
    • Access to protection mechanisms, tools, and resources (including sanctuaries, medical, psychosocial and legal services/intervention)

Photos by Mateo P. Garcia and Ed Martinez

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