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"Death by a Thousand Cuts:" Human Rights and Democratic Erosion in the Philippines

By Pradanya Nagru

“What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy … little cuts to the body of Philippine democracy, and when you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die.” - 2021 Nobel Peace Laurette Maria Ressa, 2020

Executive Summary

Tens of thousands of Filipinos fell victim to former President Roderigo Duterte's "War on Drugs." Torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and ceaseless attacks on journalists and human rights defenders were carried out with impunity. The decreasing respect for human rights and lack of accountability reflect democratic erosion in the country. If the Philippine government, the United States, and the international community fail to address the country's past and current abuses, there will be far-reaching consequences.

The Road to Manila

The Philippines has been battling drug trafficking for decades. Davao City, on the island of Mindanao, was notorious for its drug epidemic and for extrajudicial killings by government and security forces against activists, journalists, and others suspected of supporting a communist insurgency in the region.

It was in this political environment that Rodrigo Duterete ran for mayor of Davao City in 1988, promising to fight "crime, militancy, and corruption." Duterete claims that under his administration crime rates in the city dropped significantly from previous years. However, Duterete was fighting his so-called "war on drugs" by ordering "the murder [of] hundreds of alleged drug dealers" and "petty street criminals." Most of the violence is attributed to vigilante "death squads," and while Duterte denies any involvement, there was significant support from his local government. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 1000 people were killed in the city under his rule. After his 22-year mayorship, Duterte made a presidential bid in 2016, running on a platform that lauded his successes in "fighting crime" and "making the streets safer" in Davao City. He won the presidential election and implemented his repressive policies on the national scale, once again under the banner of the "war on drugs."

The War on Drugs and Human Rights Violations

According to the UN OHCHR "an overarching focus on national security, countering terrorism, and illegal drugs" led to worsening human rights in the country, including physical integrity rights violations, intimidation, and restrictions on the freedom of the press. Duterte ordered the police to kill anyone who was suspected of possessing, selling, or using drugs. The poor were disproportionately affected by this policy. Those who were not killed were arrested and put in jail, where they faced harmful prison conditions as well as torture and ill-treatment by the police. In 2020, the Philippines even considered reinstating the death penalty for drug crimes, a direct violation of the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which the Philippines has signed and ratified. Official state records put the number of extrajudicial killings during Duterte's presidency (2016-2022) at around 6,200; however, Human Rights Watch and other sources say this number could be as high as thirty thousand.

Furthermore, there was widespread repression of dissent. Human Rights defenders, activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and anyone who criticized the regime would be harassed, arrested, or murdered. Journalists and opposition leaders were often intimidated or arrested on false charges. For instance, Leila de Lima, a former Senator in the Duterte administration was jailed for speaking out against the War on Drugs. The courts charged her with illegal drug possession and accused her of "coddling drug lords." Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa was also arrested multiple times. The government accused her and her news company, Rappler, of cyber libel (i.e. spreading false information online) and tax evasion. This was Duterte's attempt to shut down the company and silence Ressa and her team's efforts to expose Duterte's human rights abuses. There is no law that explicitly restricts press freedom in the Philippines and, theoretically, people are free to publish what they want. However, there would be consequences afterward. Additionally, freedom of the internet itself was not restricted, so the government could easily push out false narratives to drown out any opposition voices or criticism online.

Another common tactic used by the government to repress dissent was "red-tagging." Red tagging occurs when someone is accused of being a communist sympathizer, and the tactic is often used by states to silence those they perceive as a threat. Decades ago, in Mindanao, the government faced a communist insurgency and fought separatist groups for decades. However, while the government is still fighting some separatist groups in the south, the communist insurgents no longer threaten the power or stability of the government. Yet, the existence of such insurgent groups was used by the government to arbitrarily imprison critics. Countless activists and ordinary citizens were red-tagged for speaking out against the government's policies. The government also used this tactic to target indigenous communities. For instance, in Mindanao, security forces raided Lumad (an indigenous community) schools and red-tagged students, which led to "illegal arrests" of students and teachers, and "forced closure of community schools."

The government took another significant step to censor online criticism of its activities by enacting the "Anti-Terrorism Act" of 2020. This language in the bill defines terrorism broadly. It allows the government to prosecute anyone for online speech and for law enforcement to conduct surveillance for long periods. Thus, with this act, the government can detain "enemies of the state" without warrants by labeling them as "terrorists." And although the language of the act states that "advocacy, protest, dissent, … and other exercises of civil and political rights" will not count as terrorism, these individuals have still been arrested under charges that do constitute terrorism, such as "creat[ing] an atmosphere or spread[ing] a message of fear, provoke[ing] or influencing … the government or any international organization, or seriously destabilize[ing] or destroy[ing] the fundamental political, economic, or social structures of the country…" Thus, the broad language of the act allows for the government to arrest any dissenters or opposition figures by labeling them a terrorist and claiming that they disrupted the public order or committed treason of some sort.

All of this has led to reduced access to independent reporting. Additionally, these threats to civil society, combined with deteriorating judicial independence and a lack of due process, have emboldened the culture of corruption and impunity and have limited any prospects for transparency. This reflects a worrying trend – democratic erosion and the rise of populist authoritarians.

A Worrying Trend: Deteriorating Respect for Human Rights Tied to Democratic Erosion

The decreased respect for human rights in the Philippines and the lack of accountability for the crimes committed are closely related to the crumbling democratic institutions in the country. The Philippines had an authoritarian regime under dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who was in power from 1972 till 1986 when a popular uprising ousted him. Marcos Sr. imposed martial law while the government fought several insurgencies. During this time, several human rights abuses took place. Opposition politicians were assassinated, and thousands of journalists and human rights activists were killed, tortured, or imprisoned for criticizing the regime. After Marcos Sr. was ousted from power, the country transitioned to a constitutional democracy, and while corruption and poverty were still big problems, the Philippines maintained its democracy.

However, the policies implemented by Duterte reflect a blatant disregard for the country's laws and its constitution. Duterte has proudly admitted to killing thousands of people without any regrets. He openly defied the constitution and said those who use drugs or oppose him must fear him. Public opinion was very divided on these policies. While some protested in the streets to condemn the human rights abuses taking place in the country, Duterte had the support of the majority of the population, who believed that his war on drugs was working and that crime rates decreased under his administration. What's interesting is that people recognized that the Duterte regime carried out human rights violations, but they still approved of his handling of the problem of illegal drugs, because he did exactly what he had said he would do on the campaign trail. Also, it is possible that many more people opposed these policies but were afraid to speak up because of fear of retaliation or harassment.

Philippines' Freedom House score decreased from 74 in 2016 to 65 in 2022, going from "free" to "partly free." Thus, with every drop of blood spilled, with every arrest, torture, and killing, with every individual whose life becomes a statistic among thousands, and every instance of human rights violation that goes unpunished, the level of democracy in the country decreases. And because there is public support for these policies, Duterte's grip on power grew stronger each time he got away with it.

International Response: A Legacy of Impunity

While there was widespread public support for the war on drugs domestically, internationally the Philippines faced criticism and condemnation from every front. Yet, accountability was nowhere to be seen and impunity remained the norm.

The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into Duterte's blatant violations of human rights law. However, the Philippines withdrew from the court in 2019. Then, in September 2021, the ICC's pre-trial chamber launched another investigation to prosecute "crime against humanity of murder" and other human rights violations that took place between 2011 and 2019. Those investigations were also put on hold at the request of the Philippine government, which asked the ICC to temporarily suspend its investigations in favor of an internal probe by the Philippine authorities. The Philippine Department of Justice subsequently released reports addressing the violations, but the DOJ has been criticized for its process and lack of transparency.

Activists and human rights defenders asked the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to investigate. In response, UNHCR and the Philippine government signed a Joint Program to improve human rights in the country by providing “technical assistance and capacity-building" for strengthening accountability, increasing civic space engagement, establishing reporting and follow-up mechanisms, and adopting a more humane approach to drug control. A lack of cooperation from the current regime has made this harder to implement. Additionally, human rights organizations have criticized this initiative, stating that it falls short of ensuring sure accountability for the extrajudicial killings.

Looking Ahead: A Ray of Hope or a Shadow of Despair?

In June 2022, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., assumed the presidency. The future of the Philippines under Marcos Jr. remains uncertain. On the one hand, Marcos Jr. acknowledges that Duterte's people "went too far sometimes." The Filippino delegation "vowed justice" at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in October 2022, and Marcos says he will continue the war on drugs, but he will focus more on the "arrest and rehabilitation" of drug users rather than extrajudicial killings. Yet, the targeting of journalists, human rights activists, indigenous people, and other marginalized communities continues under his regime. Hundreds of activists are still arrested and tortured after being red-tagged.

While these violations continue, there is little hope for accountability. Marcos continues Duterte's assertion that ICC has no jurisdiction over the Philippines and refuses to rejoin the ICC. Moreover, he has not distanced himself from his father's brutal legacy of human rights violations, saying he is "not sorry for the atrocities committed," and he remains close allies with the Duterte family. Former President Roderigo Duterte's granddaughter, Sara Duterte, is his Vice President, which could have been a calculated move by Duterte to avoid prosecution. Additionally, Duterte's popularity helped elect Marcos Jr. to office, which would make Marcos more hesitant to distance himself from his predecessor.

Policy Recommendations

While the Philippines has vowed full transparency and justice, there has not been any concrete action on their part. Instead, human rights abuses continue. The United States, the UN, the ICC, International NGOs, and the Philippine government must take steps to hold the perpetrators accountable and improve respect for human rights in the country.

For the United States:

  1. First, the US should pass the Philippine Human Rights Act (H.R. 3884), which would limit assistance provided to the Philippines military police forces until they investigate the abuses that took place by members of its security forces, ensure the protection of free speech and civil society in the country, and demonstrate a commitment to respecting The

  2. The US and the Philippines are strong defense allies. Marcos Jr. does not want to be an international pariah; instead, he wants to strengthen his country's standing in the world. He wants to strengthen the US-Philippine relationship while also engaging China. However, disputes over the South China Sea may sour relations between the Philippines and China, which poses an opportunity for the United States. The Biden administration can provide diplomatic support to the Philippines against Chinese aggression, but this support should be contingent on Marcos' commitments to human rights.

For the International Community:

  1. The International Criminal Court should resume its investigation of the crimes committed in the Philippines by Duterte.

  2. NGOs and Human Rights Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch must continue their investigations as well, and they should keep exposing abuses to ensure full transparency.

  3. The UN OHCHR should ensure continued implementation of the Joint Program started in 2021. The UN Human Rights Council should also investigate all the human rights violations and closely monitor the practices of the Marcos regime.

For the Philippines:

  1. The Philippines should rejoin ICC and must cooperate with the UN on the implementation of the Joint Program which intends to increase respect for human rights in the country and ensure transparency and accountability. Doing so will boost the Philippines' and Marcos's reputation internationally - something the president wants.

  2. Next, the Philippine government should release activists and journalists who were arbitrarily detained and denied due process.

  3. Finally, the Marcos regime should financially repatriate the victims' families. Most people in Duterte's drug war were the breadwinners in their households, leaving the families to fend for themselves. This worsened the poverty and unemployment the country is already facing, allowing more people to be sucked into drug trafficking. The government should show that it truly cares for human rights and for its people.


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