The Future of Filipino Freedoms: Addressing Democracy and Human Rights in the Philippines Halfway Through President Duterte’s Term

The Future of Filipino Freedoms: Addressing Democracy and Human Rights in the Philippines Halfway Through President Duterte’s Term

The Philippines, the oldest democracy in Southeast Asia, is continuing to move toward authoritarianism and populism under President Rodrigo Duterte. From attacks on press freedom to extrajudicial killings across the country that have left communities caught in the crossfire, actions taken by President Duterte and his administration have affected society on multiple levels. In putting forward a July 2019 resolution condemning the president’s actions against drugs and traffickers that has left thousands of citizens dead, the United Nations (UN) is sending a clear message opposing the “anti-drug campaign” currently taking place in the Philippines. Going into its third year, this campaign has evolved into a drug war that has affected all areas of the country and society. 

The passing of this resolution comes at a critical point in the Duterte administration, but without a clear plan to slow down or stop the drug war, there is still more work that could be done by the international community in order to turn their condemnation into effective action. By increasing pressure on the Duterte administration and empowering local politicians and organization working to end the gruesome drug war, the international community would ensure that the president can no longer repress criticism or avoid the many negative repercussions that his policies have brought.

Context to the Crisis: Threats to Freedoms under President Duterte

Several politicians and activists condemning the ongoing drug war have faced threats and/or actions that have brought the nation back into the spotlight. Attacks on the press and on freedom of speech have been some of the most notable and widely condemned. One of the most prominent cases of this involves Maria Ressa, editor of Rappler, an online news outlet that regularly publishes criticism of Duterte. 

President Duterte also clashes with opposition politicians, holding no restraint in retaliatory action for their criticism. Senator Leila de Lima was among the first to face this; a member of the opposition Liberal Party, she has criticized Duterte since his tenure as mayor of the southern city of Davao, prompting President Duterte’s administration bring forth dubious drug charges that led to her imprisonment. Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” With this in mind, Senator de Lima, still actively involved in policy and political life from behind bars, has had this freedom stolen by a president unfazed by the consequences of his actions to his nation’s democratic foundation.

In 2018, the Supreme Court of the Philippines voted 8-6 to oust Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on charges regarding her reporting of personal wealth. Sereno was one of the most prominent critics of Duterte and the constitutionality of his “drug war” since its beginnings in 2016. Seen as another politically motivated action against his opponents, this molding of the court system to favor the president is deeply concerning. 

The UN Resolution and Reactions

The resolution, put forward by Iceland and backed by 18 other nations, calls for the prevention of extrajudicial killings, UN oversight, and continued dialogue surrounding the issue once conclusions are made from the initial report to be presented at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). 

President Duterte reacted swiftly and negatively to the results of the vote. He has gone so far as to question maintenance of relations with the signatories on the resolution, particularly Iceland. Other senators supported the president, either arguing that the resolution amounts to foreign interference in a domestic issue, or simply dismissing it. The drug war has enjoyed support from a large majority of Filipinos, and President Duterte maintains approval ratings that are some of the highest for any Filipino president. While the UNHRC has joined the growing number of foreign governments and international organizations openly criticizing the drug war, the majority of domestic politicians are dismissive and oblivious to their concerns.

Earlier in the year, Duterte ordered the withdrawal of the country from the International Criminal Court (ICC) over preliminary investigations and increased pressure from the institution regarding the extrajudicial killings and broader “drug war” he had initiated under his presidency. However, although the resolution calls for similar investigations regarding those same issues, withdrawal from the UNHRC is unlikely. According to a tweet by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, the Philippines is “in UNHRC as a pedagogical duty to teach Europeans moral manners.” 

Vice President Leni Robredo of the opposition party has supported the resolution and welcomed further action from the UN regarding the drug war. Manuelito Luna, the head of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, countered the vice president, calling her support for the resolution a “betrayal of public trust” and advocating for her impeachment. But the vice president is right; the UN resolution is one of the most significant measures that the international community has taken in condemning the actions of President Duterte and the drug war he is leading. By passing the resolution, the 18 signatories showed their support not only for a comprehensive investigation on anti-drug practices, but for the safety and protection of all Filipinos.


What Could Come Next?

President Duterte has three more years until the end of his term, and sustained condemnation from governments, as well as international and non-governmental organizations, are the best courses of action in order to ensure lasting, effective resistance to his continuously dangerous policies. The outlook for those who continue to vocalize opposition to the president’s actions in the drug war is bleak, but the timing of the UNHRC resolution and its findings could become a catalyst for change. The Council must adopt more resolutions regarding different human rights issues currently faced by the Philippines as a result of actions taken by President Duterte in the time between now and June 2020. The vote on the July 2019 resolution was fairly spread out, with only 18 of the 47 members voting in favor of the resolution. With 15 abstentions and 14 votes against it, barely getting the votes required to pass the resolution isn’t enough with an escalating situation such as this. Increased discussion and awareness of the drug war on an influential platform like the UNHRC will be essential. 

Vice President Robredo has previously dismissed calls to run against Duterte during the next presidential elections in 2022, but she has proven fearless in criticizing the president on human rights issues in the past. As the second half of the Duterte administration begins, she and other opposition figures will need to galvanize their supporters and possible candidates if they stand a chance at defeating President Duterte and other leaders sympathetic to his policies and actions.The Liberal Party has already begun appealing to opposition candidates, including Vice President Robredo, who have been threatened or suppressed by the Duterte administration. Although it is early in the election season, activists and politicians vocal against the drug war are now able to strengthen their cases with the recent actions of the UNHRC and other international organizations that share their same argument: that the drug war and extrajudicial killings need to end, and a shift back to safety and the protection of democratic freedoms must begin. 

As the second half of President Duterte’s term begins, many uncertainties remain. His popularity is solid, and in the recent Senate elections, senators who aligned themselves with Dutere completely wiped out the main opposition coalition, Otso Diretso. The criticism from the UNHRC resolution has reflected larger issues in the Philippines regarding national sovereignty, moves away from relations with Western nations, and concerns around safety. Whether it be the threats to press freedom, the forced silencing of opposition leaders, or related issues, the UNHRC is in a place to take an even stronger stance against the Philippines, a member of the Council, albeit one moving further and further from its core values. Defending the rights of all Filipinos is an issue that goes beyond Philippine borders, and any future action taken must reflect that. 

Ending the drug war outright will be an uphill battle, especially when it enjoys the support from the public, and its effects are minimized by the government. However, this resolution is a major step toward holding the Philippine government accountable, and it shows that the international community is stepping in for all the right reasons.

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