Authoritarian Turn and Human Rights Crisis in the Philippines


Since winning the presidency in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte’s regime has enacted policies of fear and repression that have eroded democratic norms and endorsed violations of fundamental rights. The result? The return to tyranny and the deaths of tens of thousands.

In front of a crowd are standing four persons. Each is wearing a white cloth, with a crying face drawn on it, over the head.
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Anonymous protest by the relatives of murdered Filipinos.

Populist authoritarianism is proliferating across the planet. The rise of strongman leaders with an explicitly hostile view on human rights both from the Global North and Global South necessitates a deep reflection among rights defenders and political activists on how to develop innovative strategies and agendas that tackle the challenges brought about by those regressive movements.

This is needed more than ever, considering that it has been seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the 20th century’s most vital documents affirming the dignity and rights of every human being. Being one of its principal advocates, the Philippines played an essential role in its foundation. As a founding member of the United Nations and as one of the key backers of the Declaration, the country has always been at the forefront of championing fundamental human rights principles.

Historic role of the Philippines for human rights

One of the country’s most notable diplomats during that era was Carlos Romulo. Hailed as one of the leading voices from the “Third World” that pushed for the realization of the UDHR, he proved that the creation of the international human rights system was not a Western project, but a pluralist one that involved the committed engagement of decolonized states.

Despite this, Romulo’s legacy remains controversial, considering his descent towards being an apologist for Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial regime. His two-decade reign was one of the Philippines’ darkest eras – an era that current president Rodrigo Duterte has sought to rekindle.

The nostalgia for the dictatorial past

The Marcos military dictatorship was characterized by its massive corruption and repression that resulted to thousands of extrajudicial killings, torture cases, enforced disappearances and illegal detentions. More than thirty years after his ouster and the restoration of liberal democracy in the country, Filipinos are now seeing a return to tyranny.

Duterte has showed no shame in mimicking his idol’s repressive policies. And his tough-guy rhetoric during the campaign trail attracted a wide range of the citizenry despite the obvious fact that his essential promise as a presidential candidate, namely to wage a “war” on drugs, was a clear policy of mass murder.

Mimi Garcia
Mimi Garcia, 55, holds pictures of her son Richard and daughter-in-law Robilyn who were killed by masked vigilantes riding a motorcycle outside their cottage in Camarin, Caloocan on October 7, 2016. Mimi Garcia is now solely responsible for her two grandchildren, although she has no income.

Over 20,000 people fell prey to this brutality, in which he has incited the police and vigilantes to commit extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals, most of them coming from the poorest and marginalized sectors of society.[1] Nevertheless, this campaign has also served as a pretext for the government to set its sights against new targets – critics of the regime.

For instance, an intimidation campaign against activists and student movements based on faulty intelligence reports recently surfaced.[2] Duterte’s military accused these people of being part of an opposition-led ouster plot, which basically equated progressive groups with armed insurgents, stigmatizing them with the “terrorist” label and further silencing dissent.

More recently, the assassination of a lawyer known for his staunch advocacy and pro-bono work for indigent clients shed light on the “culture” of impunity rampant across the country. Since Duterte won the presidency, 34 lawyers have been killed.[3] It is worth noting that shortly after being elected, Duterte compiled a kind of “hit list” with names of judges and attorneys whom he claims to be linked with drugs and crime.

There is no doubt that the human rights situation under the current regime has worsened. But even before Duterte, the state of affairs in the country was catastrophic. His predecessor Benigno Aquino oversaw a government that failed to resolve the killings of at least 140 human rights defenders and 20 journalists. Moreover, increasing reports have emerged on rights violations and killings against indigenous communities committed by the Philippine military. This is according to a 2017 report by the German Action Network Human Rights – Philippines (AMP), in which they described the Philippines as one of the deadliest countries in the world for said groups.[4]

Human Rights in the era of populist authoritarianism

An article published on the Journal of Human Rights Practice by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, laid down some key issues concerning the ongoing challenges to human rights in the era of populist authoritarianism.[5] The threat to democracy is one fundamental point. The demonization of certain sectors of society leads to a politics of alienation that goes against democratic norms.

In the case of the Philippines, the scapegoats were initially small-time criminals; the Duterte campaign has explicitly chosen these people as enemies of society. They moreover instrumentalized fear-mongering rhetoric to gain electoral support. As the world has seen, it was a success.

Another key issue is the hostility towards institutions – both domestic and international. A prime example of this is the aggressive barrage against the International Criminal Court (ICC). Several autocratic African leaders have motioned to withdraw from the global tribunal and the Philippines under Duterte might finalize a withdrawal by spring next year.

What these leaders have in common is the use of the “neo-colonialism” card when talking about possible intervention by the ICC. But this is not about neo-colonialism or a “tug-of-war between colonialist powers and Philippine sovereignty,” as Senator Leila de Lima recently argued.[6] De Lima, Duterte’s fiercest critic, is currently detained on politically motivated grounds.

Just as it was one of the leading voices in helping realize the UN Charter and the UDHR, the Philippines was also a key proponent of the Rome Statute of the ICC. Its delegates and the coalition of civil society organizations that helped draft the document proved the country’s strong commitment to human rights values and the international rule of law.

Kian delos Santos
The coffin of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos is carried by hundreds of friends, relatives and supporters during his funeral at La Loma Cemetery in Caloocan. Kian's death led to condemnation of the government's brutal "drug war" across the country. In the same week as Kian, from August 15 to 18, 2017, 81 people were killed in police operations and vigilante groups. According to police, Kian was a drug mule and was killed in an operation after allegedly using a gun. However, surveillance camera footage showed Kian, dressed in everyday clothes, being dragged to a dark, deserted corner of Caloocan town. In November 2018, three police officers were found guilty of Kian's murder

Neo-imperialism as a red herring

While neo-imperialism is an issue that shouldn’t be lightly dismissed, it is nevertheless a red herring in this case. Because the key reason for Duterte’s withdrawal is first and foremost to evade accountability. “To escape justice,” as De Lima argued and further emphasizing the fact that “a whole treaty is being abrogated to serve the personal interests of one individual.”

The Philippine government’s reaction to the ICC prosecutor’s intent to launch a preliminary inquiry was that of rejection. It condemned the decision as an attack against domestic processes. The country may indeed have the necessary legal framework to pursue its own investigations to right the wrongs that have transpired, but this is assuming that the country’s legal institutions are strong and capable enough in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is not the case, and those who would like to see such an investigation prevented are in denial of the fact that the system has always been rottenly flawed.[7] It’s true that a potential ICC indictment would be a blatant blow against the country as it would expose the inadequacies of the legal system. But that is what’s needed to genuinely resolve this crisis of justice and accountability since the first step in overcoming this human rights calamity is acknowledging that they exist, and that the country has so far failed to offer redress.

Before being elected senator, Leila De Lima headed the justice department under President Aquino. Before that, she headed the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) where she, in 2009, called for an investigation on the Davao Death Squad (DDS), the vigilante group sponsored by Duterte while he was mayor of Davao, the city that served as his sandbox where he first experimented with his deadly policies.

Families visit the tiered graves at Navotas Public Cemetery, where many poor victims of the government's drug war are buried. Some of those buried here are dead whose bodies nobody wanted to pick up. They are placed on top of each other on the lowest floors without rituals. Even in death they are poor, they have no names, only aliases and numbers.

Weakness of the institutions

Assessing Duterte’s reign as Davao mayor makes one think how previous governments failed to see such brutality and act before it was too late. This is a testament to the weakness of the institutions in the country. While pursuing her investigation as CHR chairwoman, De Lima labeled the Davao courts as “uncooperative, obstructionist and accessories to the culture of impunity.” The CHR then had to rely on a Manila court to pursue the investigation.[8]

With Duterte in the executive and De Lima in Congress, the latter aggressively exercised her role as a staunch figure of the opposition by starting a senate investigation over Duterte’s complicity in the executions in Davao. It was later revealed by two former DDS agents who blew the whistle that the president was the one who created and organized the death squads.

Despite these exposures, justice has yet to reach the strongman in the presidential Malacañang Palace. This proves that struggling through political and legal institutions alone is insufficient. The fight and resistance against tyranny must be reinforced by a strong movement.

For the empowerment of civil society

This is where social movements play a vital role. Civil society organizations have the task to create and offer counter-narratives and radical alternatives to the status quo. A more progressive agenda must be set, which includes deepening and strengthening democracies and institutions and making them more accountable.

A change of thinking in the discourse of human rights among civil society is way overdue. There needs to be a pursuit of reimagining human rights as a frame of justice and building better alternatives.[9] Mainstream and populist rhetoric have reduced the notion of rights to its mere legalist aspects; the over-legalization of these fundamental principles has led to the idea that they are just legal claims stuck on paper. Human rights defenders must reclaim the narrative on the concept of rights and reiterate it as a moral claim about the inherent worth of every person.

While broadening the outreach at the local level and helping engage the grassroots towards this goal is important, there should nevertheless be a consistent and a strengthened engagement with global institutions as well, especially when it comes to international bodies that are vulnerable to state influence.

Requirements to enforce human rights

For instance, the Philippines winning a membership seat at the UN Human Rights Council this year saw some resistance from the country’s own civil society networks. A statement from In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) particularly condemned the vote and emphasized the fact that the Philippines has not “upheld the standards required of a UN Human Rights Council member.” Furthermore, they added that the Duterte regime “attacked the very heart of the UN Human Rights System.”[10]

International solidarity with other movements should also be strengthened to effect change that transcend beyond state borders, especially when it comes to pushing for better regional mechanisms. This is more needed than ever in Southeast Asia, where governments have escalated their repression against dissent, further shrinking vital civic spaces and heightening the hurdle towards civil society action.[11]

Seventy years after the adoption of the UDHR, we should not let authoritarian populists tarnish its legacy. More than ever, the commitments set forth in this historic document that affirms every human being’s intrinsic value should be defended. Recent and ongoing developments have shown that we cannot rely on states to fulfil this task. There must be more involvement of communities, the citizenry and the organized civil society. Only then can the promises of the Declaration of freedom, justice and peace in the world triumph for good.


[1] Summers, Hannah. (2018): The people left behind by Philippines' brutal war on drugs - photo essay. The Guardian. 14 August 2018. […]

[2] Beltran, Michael. (2018): Philippines’ hunt for Red October communist plot: a Duterte hoax? South China Morning Post. 3 October 2018. […]

[3] Regencia, Ted. (2018): 34 lawyers killed since Duterte became president: lawyers' group. Al Jazeera. 7 November 2018. […]

[4] Icking, Johannes (Ed.) (2017): Menschenrechtsbericht Philippinen. Aktionsbündnis Menschenrechte – Philippinen, Köln […]

[5] Alston, Philip. (2017): The Populist Challenge to Human Rights. Journal of Human Rights Practice. 27 April 2017. []

[6] De Lima, Leila. (2018): What the ICC withdrawal is all about. Rappler. 3 November 2018. […]

[7] Abadines, Argee. (2017): Philippine judiciary and criminal justice system under pressure: An inside look. ASEAN Today. 6 February 2017. […]

[8] Miller, Jonathan. (2018, May): Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

[9] Rodríguez-Garavito, César. (2018): Reimagining human rights as a frame of justice. OpenGlobaRights. 12 September 2018. […]

[10] In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement. (2018): Philippines does not belong to UNHRC - iDEFEND. 15 October 2018. […]

[11] Ying Hooi, Khoo. (2017): Shrinking Civic Spaces in ASEAN. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. 2 August 2017. []