Features Australia

Duterte Harry

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

At a government press conference, a grandstanding British journalist admonished Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, stating to the President of the Philippines that ‘the social fabric of the Philippines was at risk’ due to the wave of suspicious murders of drug suspects across the country. For dramatic effect, the journalist somewhat self-indulgently praised his own bravery in risking a street side execution, merely for questioning Duterte.

Critics of President Duterte’s war on crime demonstrate little understanding as to why this very unlikely figure was swept to power promising a bloodbath against criminals.

Human Rights Watch condemned Duterte and called on him ‘to address the country’s problem of extra-judicial killings’. But what so many of Duterte’s critics ignore, is the failure of Philippine society to create a secure country with minimal crime and disorder.

In response to US criticism, Duterte declared ‘they must understand the problem first before we talk about human rights’. The problems facing the Philippines are severe.

Statistics on crime and delinquency reveal that over the past 3 years, crime rates have soared in every category. In 2012, some 8,484 murders were reported, a figure that increased to 9,945 in 2014. Reports of rape jumped from 4,738 in 2012 to 10,294 two years later. Total crimes against property (i.e. robbery, vandalism and car theft) were reported at 78,092 spiking to a staggering 231,048 in 2014. Rates of drug addiction are equally disturbing, with an estimated 1 to 3 million Filipinos being drug dependent with the highest addiction rates for methamphetamines in East Asia. In the course of the crackdown, more than 20,000 suspected drug criminals have been arrested with in excess of 700,000 dealers and users handing themselves over to the police.

Since Duterte’s election, more than 3,000 people suspected of being connected to the drug trade have been killed, some in police shootouts and others by persons unknown. Much of the blame lands on Duterte for his carte blanche rhetoric against criminals, but the killings are likely a disorganised affair undertaken outside a clear hierarchy.


Reports by police authorities suggest that the consequence of Duterte’s suppression campaign has been a major decrease in the crime figures for 2016. These are early numbers and judgement should be withheld as to their accuracy. It is certainly too early to declare a definitive trend; that will take some time to determine.

Human rights advocates often make the mistake of seeing deprivations of liberty as always originating from the top down. They are not indulgent of the view that threats to individual rights can come about from below as a result of non-state forces like crime, radicalism, drug dependency and general delinquency. As Australians, the more secure we feel, the less appreciative we become of the reasons why we enjoy such a safe existence. The people of the Philippines are not ignorant colonials who need outsiders to tell them what’s good for them. They know the problems their country faces and want an end to spiralling crime rates.

If Duterte did not embark on his campaign to suppress crime, in perhaps Asia’s most crime effected country, would the fundamental liberties of the average Filipino be any better? Every citizen of the Philippines should enjoy the presumption of innocence, the right to an impartial jury trial and the prospect of rehabilitation if so convicted. All these things are a distant reality until the state has consolidated the security of the nation. That consolidation has its price, but rights and freedoms also have a price which is stability through security.

Nations do not implement human rights laws to make a country more secure and less violent. Human rights can only come about when a society is secure from violence and disorder. Individual rights cannot exist when a society is internally insecure and non-state forces exercise their own power through violence.

Tony Abbott’s recognition of the Sri Lankan government after the brutal civil war demonstrated a strong grasp of international realities. Despite international opposition, the Abbott government refrained from taking a position ‘against the tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars’. Abbott understood that a decisive victory was a surer guarantee of peace and good order than isolating Sri Lanka.

In Columbia, during the violent drug war of the early 1990s, the police systematically targeted Pablo Escobar and the other Medellin Cartel leaders, most of whom were gunned down during police raids. There was also widespread vigilante violence against suspected drug dealers during this period, with accusations that Columbian police were either participating in or tolerating scores of murders. Whether or not that was the case, there was a clear policy to shoot to kill violent drug criminals and the US gave strong support to the Columbian government in its efforts to combat a crisis convulsing Columbia in bloodshed.

The fundamental right upon which all others are based is the right of people to live in safety without fear of being the victims of uncontrolled violence. Without that, rights to free speech, religion and fair trials are inconsequential because they cannot be enforced in an environment of chaos and the absence of law. Australia will be taking refugees from the Central American states of Honduras and Guatemala because these countries have no order through which the law can protect its citizens.

Duterte’s Vice-Presidential running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, described the anti-crime measures as ‘an offensive against the drug lords, it is a clean-up process’. Cayetano said that in the long run he hoped the Philippines would have a ‘European or US type of law enforcement’ but he argued that the absence of respect for the law by criminals makes the normal procedures impossible at present.

Law does not create order, order is what creates law. In a country that is stable, secure and the life prospects of the poor are relatively good, such as in Australia, absolute regard for the law is all that is required.

But if your country is wracked by violent internal conflicts, with high degrees of crime in urban and rural areas, with increasing drug dependency among the young all combined together with one of the highest poverty rates in East Asia, laws written by legislators and enforced by a judiciary don’t achieve that much for the people.

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