Human Rights, Democracy and Institutions: An overview of the National Situation in the Philippines

, by CARLOS Ellecer “Budit”

Paper submitted at the open space workshop on “Making GSP+ Work: Towards a Human Rights Compliant Philippines”, Asia Europe People’s Forum 12, September 29-October 1 2018, Ghent, Belgium.

The open space workshop on “Making GSP+ Work: Towards a Human Rights Compliant Philippines”, Asia Europe People’s Forum 12. Ellecer Ebro Carlos is on the right side.

Immediately upon taking office, Duterte rolled back the gains in human rights and democracy won by the Filipino people over the last 30 years. Civil and political rights have been systematically eroded. Human rights defenders have been vilified and human rights principles have been deliberately distorted. This has enabled the State to commit atrocities with little hindrance and to evade accountability. Duterte effectively defined a particular section of Philippines society worthy of elimination which he regards as “not part of humanity” by dehumanizing drug dependents and petty drug peddlers in public through fear mongering and spurious statistics, thereby fomenting popular hatred towards this “inconvenient” sector.

Duterte’s populist narrative and public strategy for solving the country’s problems is the extermination of addicts and criminals, for him the main obstacles of development. His incitement to hate and kill rhetoric, his directive to the police to do whatever it takes with promise of protection against litigation, rewards and forced quotas for law enforcers and killers, all converged to establish a permission structure for mass murder, a de facto social cleansing policy, has resulted in a multi-fold human rights crisis with the extra-judicial executions of thousands of Filipinos coming from the most impoverished sections of our society. This ‘’kill society’s undesired’’ program is dehumanizing everyone in Philippine society and has lunged Filipinos in the worse human rights crisis since the Marcos dictatorship. The entire war on drugs apparatus includes a death squad epidemic which Duterte expanded from his home-city, Davao to the national level.

The Duterte administration has also been unable and unwilling to undertake affirmative action to resolve the death squad killings which President Duterte himself unleashed. This “war on the poor” has led to many other grave human rights violations including enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and planting of evidence. The war on drugs has not spared children, 102 as of the writing of this paper, a number of whom have were specifically targeted for execution. Akin to the war on drugs, President Duterte and his allies have also been railroading their priority legislations, the restoration of capital punishment and the lowering of the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility.

During the July 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte reaffirmed that the War on Drugs will be as relentless and chilling. True to his word, the daily state perpetrated, sponsored and sanctioned killings have not relented and continue at the same horrific rate. Institutionalized impunity continues with the sustained shielding of the police and death squads from litigation. There now have been over 27, 000 Filipinos coming from the most impoverished and beaten down sections of society killed in the War on Drugs. At this rate, if nothing is done to arrest this social cleansing policy, the War on Drugs will have claimed the lives of over 70,000 Filipinos by the end of his term in 2022 and that is if he steps down.

Duterte politically weaponized the drug war using it to establish a climate of fear and silence and instil obedience and subservience among the bureaucracy. By undertaking sample assassinations of those he branded as narco-politicians, 18 local executives since 2016, he delivered the chilling message that anyone who does not toe the line can be accused and eliminated.

Duterte has no intentions whatsoever to resolve the drug issue in the Philippines. Hence his neglect of evidence and good practices based responses. This sham drug war is part of a bigger scenario and Duterte bottom-line. It is a tool to consolidate and advance dictatorship in the Philippines. There is a clear Duterte ambition and direction toward authoritarian rule. This savagery is nothing more than a means which enabled the establishment of a creeping culture of fear and silence, for advancing a despotic agenda. The sustained and constant disregard for the rule of law and due process has been drastically chipping away the Philippine Justice System and eroding democratic institutions.

For the past two years, the Duterte regime’s principal preoccupation has been rendering fragile Philippine institutions ineffective, forcing the judiciary including the Supreme Court into subservience, co-opting the legislature, silencing any and all dissent, criticism and opposition, attacking institutions which provide checks and balances and building the state apparatus and machinery for dictatorship.

These deliberate and systematic undertakings include sustained attacks on the Commission on Human Rights Philippines, media outfits, the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the persecution of the political opposition through misogyny and judicial harassment and implementing a historical revisionism program that has been whitewashing the atrocities of the Marcos family (which has been backing Duterte politically and financially) and enabling them to strongly reclaim their space in politics.

President Duterte also ensured that former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the biggest plunderer after Marcos, would exonerated from the cases she has been confronted with. Today, we see the alignment of the most powerful players in Philippine politics, the Marcoses, Arroyo and Duterte, all benefitting from this political juncture.

Knowing that the human rights community would be the first to object to the mass killings, President Duterte demonized Human Rights Defenders, depicting them as coddlers of criminals, obstructionists to justice, and those who counter development. He publicly threatened human rights defenders publicly on numerous occasions and has in a way secured the public’s permission to treat them as an enemy of the people. Duterte and his bureaucrats also undertook a public campaign to distort human rights, values and principles among the public and spread misinformation on these ideals.

The creation of supermajorities in both legislative chambers enables the Duterte regime to force-legislate anti-people and authoritarian laws such as that which grants the police subpoena powers without judicial order, the removal of safeguards in the Philippine Anti-Terror Law (Human Security Act of 2007), laws restricting foreign support to Philippine Civil Society and a National ID System. The Duterte regime is also quickly upgrading the Philippine surveillance infrastructure.

The peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF) at a standstill and near-total breakdown. Duterte declared the CPP-NPA-NDFP as terrorist organizations. He has vowed to also hunt down all other groups which he believes are linked to them. He has ordered the arrest of bailed CPP leaders, issuing shoot-to-kill orders and offering bounties to citizens to kill rebels. A pending all-out war on the left has put all agents of change including human rights defenders at risk. The now ongoing crackdown on Human Rights Defenders, political, social, environmental, land and indigenous people’s rights activists is resulting in the wholesale grave human rights violations including Extra Judicial Killings, Enforced Disappearances and Torture. Catholic priests which were somehow protected by virtue of being church leaders have not spared with 3 priests killed since December 2017.

The War on Drugs Human Rights calamity and the onslaught on human rights defenders and activists is just half of the story. Unbeknown to the world, the undeclared Duterte dictatorship has another ugly head that has begun rearing its head.

Massive human rights violations in the southern part of the Philippines, Mindanao, which has been under martial rule since May 2017 are starting to surface. We are now discovering that these atrocities may actually rival the magnitude of the drug war, Human Rights Violations include Extra-Judicial Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture, numerous rape cases and violations of International Humanitarian Law.

Martial Law & suspension of writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao may very well be a dress rehearsal for the nationwide imposition of military rule. The breakdown of the talks with the CPP will further bolster Duterte’s intent and justification to do this.

Duterte and his adherents have also shown nothing but contempt towards marginalized and vulnerable sectors like women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, LGBTs and indigenous peoples.

President Duterte’s economic programs reveal that his administration will just continue to pursue the neo-liberal tracks of his predecessors. This means that the Philippine economy remains unprotected against the ravages of Globalization, Trade Liberalization, and deregulation and that services, opportunities and production will remain market-oriented rather than for human need. After a year and a half in office, it has become clear that President Duterte has, like his predecessors, surrendered to the elite, corporations and banks the control of economy, natural resources and the environment (protection of private sector). The administration thus has refused to address the systemic deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights.

The only program that if fully articulated and seriously implemented by this administration is the War on Drugs. There is no coherent policy that would effectively address widespread abject poverty, arrest the increasing hunger and malnutrition incidences, and stem the rising unemployment. President Duterte’s campaign promise to end “contractualization” has only resulted in labor unrest. The prices of basic goods, transportation and electricity costs have spiralled. Fuel products also continue to rise despite falling world prices. The recently enacted and now being implemented Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Law which passes on to consumers the larger portion of the tax, has caused prices of basic goods to skyrocket, further impacting the Filipino cost of living. No new legislation to push forward the stalled agrarian reform is entertained in congress. Indigenous Peoples communities continue to be ravaged by large scale infrastructure and mining projects and other forms of development aggression. There are no programs which intend to democratize essential services or redistribute national wealth. With the same pro-elite & oligarchy socio-economic policies, we foresee the deepening of inequality and the continued prevalence of human rights violations.

A new set of Duterte cronies have emerged. Pork barrel was reinstated and it is included in theP3.35-trillion national budget for 2018. Malacañang and Congress have quietly kept alive anew the graft-ridden system into the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). This pork barrel system of the government clearly perpetuates corruption which effectively diverts the resources of government and had been deceiving the people and suffer from half-baked or even ghost projects, and denies them the basic services they need. Dutertenomics has resulted in an all-time high inflation rate in the Philippines.

President Duterte was able to capture popular support by exploiting the fact that the socio-political and economic conditions were ripe for the rise of a strongman in the Philippines. President Duterte’s campaign team packaged him as tough but pro-people, a strongman with a hard-lined approach in crushing crime, corruption and the drug problem. His battle-cry, “Change is coming” resonated with a populace that had grown desperate and frustrated under decades of unabated poverty, widening economic disparities and persistent deprivation of rights and an inoperable and anti-poor criminal justice system. It was a populace who felt that the promise of EDSA never materialized for ordinary citizens because of elite dominated politics, who believed that “progress” and orderliness in Davao could be replicated in the entire country. Duterte continues his pro-people, anti-elite pretence by sowing fear and hate through a well-oiled propaganda machinery now composed of pockets of extremist nationalist groups referred to as Duterte Die-hard Supporters (DDS).

This well financed machinery is effective in defending his image, re-echoing his kill and anti-human rights rhetoric, spreading half-truths, lies, fake news, promoting online bullying and intolerance to criticism, a distorted sense of patriotism as well as shaping mind-sets and manipulating public opinion. Duterte and his allies have also made full use of government news and information agencies to dispatch attacks against critics and detractors.

Duterte and his allies are also engaged in massive organizing of a ‘nationwide mass movement’ called Kilusang Pagbabago with the use of public funds. Its main role is “to protect the president,” by fighting “against the elements sabotaging his call for change”. Other nationwide movement called Mamamayang Ayaw sa Anomalya, Mamamayang Ayaw sa Iligal na Droga was organized which is turning civilians into vigilantes, spies and informants. Both structures could be used for the witch-hunt of anyone who voices concern.

Another Duterte claim which has turned out to be bogus is an independent foreign policy for the Philippines. His anti-imperialist posturing through public pronouncements such as the abandonment of US ties in favour of a “pivot to China” have been very inconsistent. In fact, Duterte has not asserted sovereignty from US in the real sense and the Philippines has not abrogated the unequal security treaties and the old relations continue while the President cultivates “warmer relations with Russia and China”. The Armed Forces of the Philippines continue to rely on operational compatibility with the US and its presence in the Philippines. The Philippines is still a major staging area for the assertion of US geo-political hegemony and remains co-opted in its war on terror. President Duterte opted to surrender our right to the West Philippine Sea despite the favourable UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral ruling vs China. This was a political manuever demonstrating good will to China in order to gain monies and favors. This had a net effect of selling our sovereignty to China, a growing imperialist power. In his first year in office, President Duterte already borrowed from China more than his predecessor did in an entire term. Duterte’s build-build-build rhetoric means he will pay for the loans from China with the taxes he will impose on the Filipino people. These huge loans will trap us further into debt.

Duterte is relentlessly pursuing his track towards achieving absolute power through persistent attempts to erode democratic space, civil liberties & human rights. Filipinos are now confronted with imminent dictatorship and the near-demise of democracy. This is the closest the country has been to an authoritarian regime since the Marcos dictatorship. A weak political opposition and a still-divided civil society providing the critical opposition makes formal dictatorship very possible in the Philippines.

With his popularity being threatened, President Duterte is now rushing his handful of options toward one-man-rule. Slowly being pushed against the wall, predisposes this violent president to resort to more hard-lined measures and becoming more violent.

For Philippine civil society, the challenge is huge and unprecedented. While threatened as targets, here are just a handful of challenges for human rights defenders and activists in the Philippines:

1. Raising awareness among Filipino communities on the importance of due process, the sanctity for the right to life and human dignity thereby widening the circles of concern and disapproval to the incitement to hate, violence and the dehumanization of drug dependents (reversal of the damage to civic behaviour and increasing collective sociopathy).

2. Undertaking massive human rights education and organizing work to bring human rights values closer to everyday reality. Break the myth that Human Rights are not just about guarding against excesses in law enforcement or confined to CPR but are actually the foundations of a life of dignity.

3. End the bloody politics that has killed thousands of poor people under the war on drugs and the war against terror in Mindanao.

4. Organizing communities for defense and resistance strategies.

5. Multiplying and expanding sites of courage, resistance and opposition by establishing a united front against the killings, attacks on democratic institutions and impending dictatorship.

6. Institutionalizing the truth, countering state sponsored & sanctioned historical revisionism & high level impunity.

7. Expose the duplicity of Duterte who claims to be a pro-people but who has no programs for social justice, whose economic program explicitly says it will continue the neoliberal policies of his predecessor, and who now enjoys the support of nearly all sectors of the elite.

8. Dismantle elite rule, both at the national and local levels.

9. Create the democratic space for genuine people’s empowerment, human rights based governance and intervention in politics.

International Solidarity played a crucial role in ending the Marcos Dictatorship. There is now much work being undertaken to revive the once-strong solidarity movement for the Philippines which was quite remarkable during the Marcos dictatorship. The human rights community for example, is extending the human rights movement outside the Philippines.

The UN, particularly the UN Human Rights Council member states and the European Union for the large part are only aware of the War on Drugs Extra-Judicial Killings. The situation in the Philippines has not yet triggered international alarm.

The main purpose in international solidarity work is to impart the truth to international actors. Our collective challenge is to dispel misperceptions that in certain aspects, there are improvements in the Philippines such as labor, governance (in terms of eradicating corruption) and the environment.

Our main message is that space is drastically shrinking in the Philippines and the fast deteriorating situation is disaster unfolding. President Duterte has clearly waged a war on the poor, a war on human rights, a war against the rule of law, a war against democracy. This President consciously constricted all meaningful space for human rights discourse and defense in the Philippines. He explicitly vowed to slaughter thousands and is continuing to kill into the thousands. His persisting social cleansing policy has been reinforcing and encouraging would-be other War on Drugs implementers in other parts of the world like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri-Lanka. What message are we transmitting to despots who also intend to make human life cheap and establish dictatorships in their countries? What message are we sending out to the global community if the EU and the UNHRC do not make the Philippine one of their priority concerns? Taboos are now being broken at the UN, with the Philippine Government again regaining a seat at the UN Human Rights Council this year.

In his attempt to avoid accountability, this president and his regime attacked the very heart of the UN Human Rights system, cursing members of the UNHRC Special Procedures mandate holders like the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Executions, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and the former High Commissioner for Human Rights. In March of this year, Duterte, without a Senate concurrence, unconstitutionally withdrew the Philippines as a State party to the Rome Statute, believing he could avoid the possibility of being held liable for crimes against humanity in the future.

Since the Philippine Judiciary including the Supreme Court is now completely subservient to President Duterte, impartial investigations into the Extra-Judicial Killings and other grave human rights violations as well as any form of affirmative action are now impossible in the country. All hope for families of victims of Extra-Judicial Killings to obtain justice and reparation within the Philippine has become lost. The only immediate recourse for thousands of these families for restitution and justice is through practical action being undertaken by the international community through the UN Human Rights system and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by way of launching an Independent International Investigation.

Ellecer Ebro Carlos