Government by assassination: President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, and the crumbling of civilization


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as alleged assassin

See Chris Lorano, “Philippine President Duterte Ordered Killings as Mayor, Senate Witness Says; In televised Senate hearings, man says he participated in a death squad under Duterte’s command, Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2016 (Updated 7:27 a.m. ET).

Till Fähnders (Singapur), “Philippinen: Der Präsident als Killer? Rodrigo Duterte soll vor seinem Amtsantritt einen Menschen erschossen und etliche Morde in Auftrag gegeben haben; Das behauptet ein Zeuge,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 September 2016.

Duterte’s public exhortations to kill drug criminals

See United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Geneva), “UN experts urge the Philippines to stop unlawful killings of people suspected of drug-related offences,” August 18, 2016. Excerpts

“We call on the Philippines authorities to adopt with immediate effect the necessary measures to protect all persons from targeted killings and extrajudicial executions,” said the new UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard.

“Claims to fight illicit drug trade do not absolve the Government from its international legal obligations and do not shield State actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings,” Ms. Callamard stressed. “The State has a legally binding obligation to ensure the right to life and security of every person in the country, whether suspected of criminal offences or not.”

During his election campaign and first days in office, Mr. Duterte repeatedly urged law enforcement agencies and the public to kill people suspected of trafficking drugs who don’t surrender, as well as people who use drugs. The President was also reported as promising impunity for such killings and bounties for those who turn in drug dealers ‘dead or alive’.

“Directives of this nature are irresponsible in the extreme and amount to incitement to violence and killing, a crime under international law. It is effectively a license to kill,” the UN expert on summary executions warned. “Intentional lethal use of force is only allowed when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life and should not be used for common policing objectives,” she said.

Obama as “son of a whore”

See “Obama’s response to Philippine President Duterte calling him a ‘son of a whore: ‘He’s a colornful guy,’” The Trenchant Observer, September 6, 2016.

The strategic game:  U.S. interests in the Philippines, and Duterte’s flirtation with China and Russia

Trefor Moss, “Philippine President’s Shift on U.S. Alliance Worries Military; His willingness to upend alliance with U.S. has dumbfounded even those in his inner circle,” Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2016 (4:44 p.m.).

Obama’s failure to speak out

Obama was obviously “rolled” by Duterte’s vulgar outburst calling him a “son of a whore”. He proceeded to meet with him at the regional summmit in Vientiane, Laos. He made an anodyne statement that was probably drafted by his “Assistant National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication”, Ben Rhodes, as follows:

Obama responded in his own speech later: “Clearly, he’s a colourful guy. I always want to make sure if I’m having a meeting that it’s productive and we’re getting something done.”

He added: “We recognize the significant burden that the drug trade plays not just in the Philippines but around the world, and fighting narco-trafficking is tough. But we will always assert the need to have due process and to engage in that fight against drugs in a way that’s consistent with basic international norms.”

–Mary Papenfuss, “White House cancels Philippines meeting hours after Duterte called Obama a ‘son of a b****’; Duterte’s a ‘colourful guy’ but ‘I want a productive meeting,’ said Obama of the decision to cancel, Businss Insider, September 6, 2016 (01:34 BST).

When one might have expected a clear statement by President Barack Obama about U.S. values and its opposition to Duterte’s calls for vigilante justice against drug criminals and his promises of impunity for police and other officials who killed such individuals, what we got instead was a kind of diplomatic formula that played down the real issues.

Now, Obama or his successor will have to sort out the conflicted military and diplomatic relationships that have followed (1) his announced intent to call Duterte out for the extrajudicial executions and his call for vigilante murders and guarantee to officials of impunity; (2) being grossly insulted in a manner which cost him enourmous “face” in the Philippines and Asia; and (3) then failing to respond even with clear words and a clear articulation of U.S. values and foreign policy principles, further compounding the loss of face.

“Playing nice” obviously did not work with Duterte, as it has not worked with other authoritarian leaders.

Obama should now make a clear statement on the issue of extrajudicial executions, vigilante justice, and impunity in the Philippine’s drug war. He should also speak clearly about strategic issues, taking care not to appear to be dealing from a position of weakness, which would undermine U.S. supporters among the military, the government, and the population of the Philippines.

When the president of a country leads the assault on the “rule of law”, and there is no strong response from other countries, civilization itself starts to crumble.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.