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The terrifying lessons of the Philippines' vigilante president

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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.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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The drug lords are killing the lower level drug dealers because Duterte is offering amnesty to all the lower level guys if they rat on their bosses.

Duterte's tactic is working, and he's cleaning up the streets.

Power to him.

-9 ( +1 / -10 )

Bush is right. A lot of the murders are committed by other drug dealers trying to cover their @sses

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Long story short,

Duterte is warming up to China and Russia, so both the AP and Reuters got ordered to demonize the guy.

-10 ( +1 / -11 )

Yes. I agree it is troubling. Could Japan look at the politics and assassinations from 1931 leading up to Japan going into China, and then the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, etc? there was a lot of imperial interference in politics. Behind the scenes manipulations change Japan from the Strike North (Russia) to the Strike South faction. Read the book: The Imperial Conspiracy if you want some insight to what was going on. Makes you really worried about what is happening in the Philippines and may soon happen in the States.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wonder how many of the dead drug dealers were politicians or others who opposed Duterte or people whose removal would be convenient to someone powerful such as someone who would not sell his property was owed money, or knew something that could be embarassing to say the least.

Burning Bush suggests that drug lords do many of the killings. Could drug lords, the police and politicians sometimes even be one and the same?

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Now it is drug dealers or users, a year from now it will be another group who are threatening society, either rightly or not. Duterte is a thug, you know that just by looking at him. He happens to be an elected one. Otherwise he could be a drug lord himself easily. One possible explanation is that Duterte is in the pocket one of the drug lords and is a tool to wipe out the competition. Otherwise he would have been executed himself by now. Someone powerful is protecting him from the consequences of his horrible crimes as President. Anyway, this will not end well. We all know that. The country will suffer and live will be more miserable for most. Drug use is horrible, anarchy is worse.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

"Now it is drug dealers or users, a year from now it will be another group who are threatening society, either rightly or not."

"This week, he openly threatened to target human rights activists whom he accused of getting in the way of the purge." And then he will target (if he hasn't yet) politicians who oppose him, who will mysteriously be murdered by drug criminals, of course.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Only a sniveling lefty snob from Reuters sees it necessary to bring up Trump a few times based on vague evidence in his report on the unpleasant Filipino president's activities. Why he does it is of course obvious to any outsider but not so apparent to himself since he assumes he's doing a great social and political service. Not worth reading news reports anymore for all the bias oozing out.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Duterte is a thug, you know that just by looking at him.

Was the irony intentional?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

What seems clear is that we do not really know what is going on in the Philippines, and we are unlikely to find out from the biased mainstream media.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Social media have given us unprecedented access to the outside world and it should be obvious to anyone with a little knowledge of history and a smidgen of decency that many of the world's leading politicians are morally speaking very ugly human beings. Duterte with the reptilian eyes of a ruthless thug talks like a fascist and leaves us in no doubt about his hand in the mass murders.The truth has not yet been uncovered, but his administration will one day be brought to account to answer before the bar of history. Let's hope that Trump does not soil himself by cozying up to this despicable creature.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Well Filipinos voted for him, so I guess they were wanting widespread extrajudicial executions as Duterte himself said he would do it. In today's world where politics has become a form of entertainment where people are more interested in reactions and confrontation rather than any sort of self interest, I suspect we will see these sorts of policies all over the world in the coming decade or so

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I won't risk my life by visiting Philippine at the moment. Philippine is beautiful country but mistaken identity will make you turn corpse on street for Asian looking peoples. I support cracking down on drug dealers and traffickers but it should be done by right way and inside the law. You can't shoot everyone who you think he or she was selling drug. Even in old Wild West era the bounty hunters have to follow the law and they can not shoot and kill everyone they think that person was fugitive and wanted. What President Duterte doing was he may cross the like that President was allowed.

Now many executed drug dealers’ wives were becoming widow and children were left without father in their lives. President Duterte does not see it as social problem at all. It will be his dark legacy in Philippine history. He was only murdering small drug dealers on the street and real drug kingpins are free and some of them may be his closed friends.

The killing of drug dealers won’t be stopping peoples using drug or deal drug. The drug trafficking business will be back as soon as he left the office. President Duterte does not have long term plan for eradication of drug problem in Philippine.

Long term solution for eradication of drug trafficking and drug using problem, President Duterte must have drug education program and rehabilitation program for drug users and heavy penalty and jail term for drug traffickers and seller. Also President Duterte needs to introduce “Forfeiture laws” to confiscate convicted drug traffickers’ wealth (assets and money) as well as unexplained wealth of convicted drug traffickers’ family members. Also, he must introduce tough law for Police corruption. The corrupt Cops are main players in drug trafficking business in any country. The Police knew who the drug kingpin was and who drug dealer was but police take money and keep quiet and arrest small drug dealers on the street. President Duterte needs to understand how drug trafficking was working and why poor peoples turn to use drug and selling drug. The poverty is main reason for peoples selling drug in the street. The poverty is main reason for poor peoples using drug to escape from reality world to fantasy world. The greed and evil soul is main reason for wealth drug kingpin trafficking and controlling illicit drug business.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Mongolia a while back had a young technocrat in charge of an effort to turn the currency 100 percent electronic. I don't think it actually happened, though. If the Philippines managed that, the drug money would be a lot more trackable.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

If only Abe could also go gangsta on corrupt officials and yakuza in Japan

What we need are iron-fisted leaders

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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