President Duterte may be at odds with most of the international community over rights abuses but, notes Richard Cockett, his belligerenceis reaping political dividends at home

On March 21 another 13 suspected drug-dealers were killed by police in gun battles in the Philippines’ northern province of Bulacan.A further hundred ‘dealers’ and ‘criminals’ were hauled off to prison; they are not necessarily the lucky ones. Another day, and a pretty average one, in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Last August, 32 suspects were gunned down by the police on a single day in Bulacan.

Duterte has been in power for just over a year-and-a-half, yet the official death toll of drug suspects has now topped 4,100. Human-rights groups unanimously argue that the correct figure is about three times as much. Such is the way with Duterte’s war, however, that the true numbers will never be known. The Philippines has pretty well abandoned all legal norms in its crazed efforts to eradicate drugs; it is a war of the back alley, of vendetta killings and summary executions. No-one is keeping an accurate body count.Duterte has also named and shamed several provincial politicians and businessmen as ‘drug lords’, supposedly controlling the narcotics trade in this South-East Asian nation of about 100million people. Some of these politicians have subsequently been killed in what police call, obscurely, ‘shootouts’.

The country has already been heavily criticised by supra-national bodies such as the powerful Catholic Church for the murderous brutality of the crackdown. So it was inevitable that at some point the human-rights machinery of the United Nations would be mobilised against the Philippines. Last year Duterte, as is his style, called the UN ‘stupid’ and ‘shit’ when it first started condemning the clear abuses of human rights in his war on drugs. But this particular conflict, between Duterte and the UN, is now escalating, to the point where it could have serious consequences for the president.

The UN case against Duterte is as broad as it is grave. As well as the drug war, for instance, UN special investigators have been looking into the alleged abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples. But Duterte’s response to it all has been exactly the same – an unbending, belligerent defiance. In response to the investigation into indigenous rights, for example, he has put the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, on a terrorist watch-list, for allegedly being a senior member of a Maoist rebel group. This so shocked the UN that its human-rights chief unwisely remarked that Duterte might need a psychiatric evaluation. He might well do, but UN bosses are never going to win a war of insults with the foul-mouthed Duterte. He shot back at a meeting of soldiers: ‘If these fools come here, are there crocodiles here? The ones that eat people? Throw those sons of b****** to them.’

Last month the ICC, based in The Hague, started preliminary hearings against Duterte over allegations of ‘crimes against humanity

Most threateningly, last month the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, started preliminary hearings against Duterte over allegations of ‘crimes against humanity’. A report submitted to the ICC accuses Duterte of ‘extrajudicial executions and mass murder’, not only during his presidency but over the whole of the three decades since he began his war on drugs as mayor of Davao in 1988. This report, compiled by a Filipino lawyer, puts the death toll at nearer 8,000. It is the first time that the ICC has brought a case in a South-East Asian nation. Previously, the court had been heavily criticised for concentrating almost exclusively on Africa.

The Filipino response was swift and angry. An affronted Duterte denounced the ‘baseless, unprecedented and outrageous attacks’ on him,scorning the ICC as ‘dumb’ and ‘evil’. He chose the eve of international women’s day to start getting mean and personal with the ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard. He called the former a ‘black’ woman and the latter ‘undernourished’, warning: ‘Don’t [mess] with me, girls.’ Naturally, these racist and demeaning remarks did not go down well with women and human-rights groups.

Unsurprisingly, Duterte backed up his invective by declaring that the Philippines will leave the ICC, which it joined in 2011, as soon as possible. The ICC, however, says that this process could take upto a year. Furthermore, leaving will not necessarily stop the judicial proceedings; the ICC is involved in plenty of cases against politicians and heads of state in countries that are not signed up to the court. Most notably,Sudanese President Bashir has been indicted for genocide and war crimes over the war in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

Duterte can probably afford to ignore the UN – for now

If the Philippines does leave the ICC(and it looks highly likely that it will), this would mark a further step away from the Western rules-based international order that the country spent years getting into. Diplomatically and politically, it might gradually find itself beyond the pale for Western governments and investors. They are already under pressure from NGOs, other human-rights lobby groups and activists over any involvement in Duterte’s blood-soaked regime. If Duterte is eventually indicted – still a long way off – it would hem him in a bit; all countries that belong to the ICC are obliged by law to hand over any indicteeswithin their own jurisdictions. Travelling to international summits, for instance, might become tricky.

Equally, though, Duterte is highly unlikely to change tack. For a start, his electorate seems to enjoy his belligerence just as much as he does. He revels in stratospheric popularity ratings, the best of any president, apparently, since records began. In a recent poll, a full 79 per cent of adult Filipinos said they were satisfied with his performance, against only 9 percent dissatisfied, resulting in a net satisfaction rating of +70.  The polling organisation reports that the president is so popular because, basically, he walks the talk: ‘It is related to his actions, because he implemented what he promised, starting with his anti-drugs campaign, and then the Build, Build, Build infrastructure projects, anti-corruption efforts, and now the… shift to federalism,’it says.

Duterte also has one particularly significant fan–in the White House.  President Trump is a fellow bare-knuckle political fighter, and the American has made no secret of his admiration for the ruddy-faced Filipino. Last year Trump reportedly called Duterte to congratulate him on the ‘unbelievable job’ he was doing on the drug problem. ‘Many countries have the problem,’ said Trump, ‘We have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.’ Trump has also praised two other very authoritarian Asian regimes, Singapore and China, for their zero-tolerance policies on drugs,. Duterte might be cold-shouldered by many, but this makes Trump’s support all the more vital, particularly as the Philippines continues to negotiate with China in the South China Sea.

DEATH ON THE STREETS: Duterte's campaign against drugs has claimed thousands of lives-drugs
DEATH ON THE STREETS: Duterte’s campaign against drugs has claimed thousands of lives-drugs

Now Trump has gone a step further, saying that he will be seeking the death penalty for his own drug dealers. ‘Think of it,’ Trump told a crowd, sounding eerily like Duterte, ‘You kill one person you get the death penalty, in many states. You kill 5,000 people with drugs, because you’re smuggling them in and you’re making a lot of money, and people are dying and they don’t even do anything. Then you wonder why we have a problem, and that’s why we have a problem. I don’t think we should play games!’ Trump seems to have been emboldened by Duterte, and it cannot have escaped the American President’s attention that the Filipino’s strongman’s popularity soars the stronger he sounds, and acts. That has very much been Trump’s style all along too.

In short, with friends like this, and the overwhelming support of his own people, Duterte can probably afford to ignore the UN – for now. But there will be consequences, both for the rule of law in the Philippines as well as the country’s international standing.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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