Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ascended into power in June 2016 riding on a promise that he will enforce the law and eradicate drugs and crime in the country. He was voted into the presidency as a plurality of registered voters perceived that his iron-fist governance style in Davao City where he used to be Mayor would be the answer to the ills plaguing Philippine society. As Duterte and his supporters succeeded in hyping the drug problem to crisis proportions as well as pin the blame on the previous administration, it was able to enforce a “war on drugs” that primarily gave a seal of approval to law enforcers to kill suspected drug users and pushers. This also consequently gave rise to a spate of vigilante killings by masked men riding in motorcycles.


The Philippine National Police reports that as of January 31, 2017,7,080 people have been killed from extrajudicial killings that involved police officials as well as unidentified vigilante groups since the war on drugs started on July 1, 2016. Of these deaths, 2,555  were killed in police operations. The death toll is expected to rise as the Duterte administration determinedly pursues its violent war on drugs – a war that has so far only victimized poor suspected drug users and pushers and a slew of innocent bystanders, including children.


Duterte, with his fear-based leadership, has constantly warned citizens to follow the law. Otherwise,  they will suffer the consequences of crime. He has effectively appropriated the rule of law, whose enforcement and interpretation is virtually determined by him. At the same time, he has completely disregarded a fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed legal principle – due process or the right of suspects to fair hearing by an independent tribunal or court.


This disregard of due process has resulted in the worsening of the violations of the basic rights of the powerless and the opposition as the current government has proved more than ever that the law serves only the privileged select few. In contrast to the killing of suspects living in the slums, suspected drug lords have yet to be arrested, much more killed. For instance, Peter Lim, pointed by drug convicts as a drug lord, even receives audience from the President.


The further erosion of a weak justice system


Prior to the Duterte presidency, the Philippine criminal justice system has been institutionally weak. The wheels of justice grind ever-so-slow as legal cases take years, even decades, to be resolved. The system is besieged by graft and corruption as judges and court officers are inclined to accept bribes and lawmakers engage in horse-trading to preserve their personal and political interests. The poor and marginalized have limited access to justice as government legal support is minimal.  Many of the poor who are prosecuted cannot afford competent private lawyers.  They usually end up being convicted without the opportunity of a good defense and legal counsel. Moreover, the prison system with its gang culture, abusive officials and sordid conditions turn them into hardened convicts instead of being rehabilitated to be productive members of society after they have finished their sentence.


The propaganda surrounding the urgency and need for a war on drugs has further weakened the justice system. It has worsened impunity on extrajudicial killings and the lack of accountability on the part of erring law enforcers. Police officials are shielded from legal and administrative sanctions as no less than Duterte handles them with soft gloves – remaining true to his assurance that he will have the backs of the police involved in the war on drugs. It is not much surprise then that in holding on to his word, Duterte allows abusive and incompetent law enforcers to get away with their wrongdoings.


Recently, an illegal police operation dubbed as “Tokhang for Ransom” where police syndicate extort money from the rich by tagging them as drug criminals has been bared. This was after the abduction and slaying of South Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo by police officials has been uncovered and received national as well as international attention. “Tokhang for Ransom” is a derivative of “Oplan Tokhang”, which is supposedly the legitimate police operation in the government’s war on drugs that targets drug pushers.


The mocking of human rights


In the first few months of the President’s term, Duterte supporters and propagandists have succeeded in mocking and ridiculing concepts of human rights and the rule of law by targeting groups raising human rights concerns.


One Carlo de Leon in his blog write up entitled “Human Rights for Hire” ( accuses those who criticize the President for the extrajudicial killings as paid hacks. He called the “media, United Nations, Commission on Human Rights, religious groups and church leaders, and anti-Duterte supporters (or the sore losers of May 2016)” as “human rights for hire.”


In the Philippines, the call to respect human rights is being used to impede President Duterte’s war against drugs and criminality.  His critics accuse PDU30 of unleashing a national death squad with impunity.  Some wonder where civility has gone, when the madness will end, and why most Filipinos lustily cheer news of drug-related killings.  Perhaps, as a final blow to the traditional corrupt politicians whose job it was/is to address these same social problems (and, instead, profited from them in the past), most Filipinos see this as the final solution to end the prevalence of drug trafficking, drug-addiction, all sorts of heinous crimes and their umbilical cord to corrupt politicians, government officials, and members of the police, military, and the judiciary,” De Leon writes.


Views like this further enabled the aggressive war on drugs, which was met by virtual silence by the general public. It is only recently when death statistics could no longer be ignored and even the kin of Duterte supporters have been victimized by the extrajudicial killings that more people are starting to raise their voices.


Overall, the Duterte and his machinery were able to make the public believe that human rights are obstacles to attaining peace and order. In several instances, Duterte himself totally ignores human rights, calling it “as always the anti-thesis of government.” (


When he talked about the war on drugs in October 2016, he said: “I do not care what the human rights guys say. I have a duty to preserve the generation. If it involves human rights, I don’t give a sh*t. I have to strike fear because the enemies of the state are out there to destroy the children.”


He even went to the extent of threatening to kill human rights campaigners for hindering his war on drugs.


‘The human rights [defenders] say I kill. If I say ‘OK, I’ll stop’, they [drug users] will multiply,” Duterte said. ‘When harvest time comes, there will be more of them who will die. Then I will include you among them because you let them multiply.” (


In a way, support for the war on drugs through extrajudicial killings indicates the little progress that has been made in decades of human rights and legal education. It seems a deep understanding of the concept of human rights in the Philippines today is confined to educated circles and communities reached by progressive groups throughout their years of human rights education. But generally, there is not much knowledge or importance given to basic human rights, especially to those considered as dregs of society. The general public would easily have the rights of suspects traded off in exchange for what it perceives to be swift justice and the solution to crime.


It is perhaps this ignorance or shallow understanding of human rights that enable Duterte supporters to  easily scoff at the concepts and principles of human rights. Propaganda has succeeded in giving the perception that human rights simply protect trouble-makers, dissenters, rebels and criminals. Thus the human rights of suspected criminals particularly their right to due process have been seen as mere hindrances to the eradication of drugs in the country. Rights of victims are pitted against rights of suspected criminals when in truth, there is no clash between them as human rights are for all. But then, drug users and pushers are seen as disposable elements of society who deserve death. And the government has been successful in painting these drug users and pushers as incorrigible and unworthy of rehabilitation.


Justice is Death


This acceptance of death as punishment for a crime is also about to be legislated into law through a bill in Congress seeking to re-impose capital punishment. It is quite a paradox that despite the general perception of the flaws of the criminal justice system, the death penalty is seen by lawmakers as a solution to crime. Many advocates have pointed out that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime and only an effective criminal justice system will prevent potential violators from committing offenses. They say individuals will not commit crime if they know they will be caught. They argue that even if the death penalty exists, offenders will still commit crime because they know that they will be able to get away with it. These arguments, however, fall on the deaf ears of legislators whose response to peace and order problems is to capitalize on sentiments of vengeance and a barbaric concept of justice.


Aside from the death penalty being a violation of the right to life and the freedom from cruel and degrading punishment, it will also just mainly victimize the poor as they are the ones who have no access to competent legal counsel and are mostly likely to convicted. To make matters worse, lawmakers have again shown how they could manipulate the law to serve their interests. In the proposed bill reinstituting the death penalty, the crime of plunder has been removed as among the heinous crimes that merit capital punishment.


Hence, this could best exemplify the state of legal justice in the Philippines: A poor farmer convicted of possession of marijuana may be meted out the death penalty while a rich politician who has robbed taxpayers of 50 million pesos may even avoid persecution. But then, given that poor innocent children have been killed in police operations in the past months while drug lords remain free, perhaps such discriminate application of the rule of law is just being consistent with the unequal power relations between classes and groups in the Philippines. Clearly, Duterte’s war on drugs has eroded whatever progress has been made concerning human rights, the rule of law and social justice. And it is the poor who are paying the price.

(written Jan 15, 2017 as a contribution to a German publication.)