Duterte brings the #Philippines back to the Dark Ages says EU report

November 14, 2017
Colin Stevens

It comes as little surprise: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s (pictured) bloody crackdown on drugs significantly worsened the human-rights situation across his country in the latter half of 2016, according to a recent EU report. While the Philippines was indeed no stranger to extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations prior to Duterte taking office last June, the slaughter of thousands of suspected dealers and addicts during his on-going ‘war on drugs’ and the possible reintroduction of the death penalty contributed to a marked decline in respect for the right to life, due process, and rule of law over the final six months of last year.  

Duterte’s rise to power was aided in no small part by his vocal support for the extrajudicial execution of drug peddlers, addicts, and other criminals, but any hope that he might soften his position once in office has long since evaporated. In addition to regularly celebrating news of the murder of suspected criminals at the hands of police or tacitly state-sanctioned death squads, Duterte has most recently admitted to killing someone as a teenager and has said he would like to emulate Hitler by exterminating the country’s estimated three million drug users.

But while Duterte’s hard-line anti-drugs policy and brutal rhetoric rightfully make his administration a serious cause for concern for Brussels and world leaders alike, the Philippines is far from unique in Southeast Asia when it comes to deteriorating human rights. Over the course of the past 12 months, only three members of the 10-stong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not seen a rise in human rights abuses and a decline of democratic freedoms. On top of the growing disregard for due process in the Philippines, other nations in the region have demonstrated an increasing propensity to tolerate – if not encourage – racism and discrimination against minority groups.

It’s now well-known that in Myanmar, the country’s once-exalted leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under fire for her failure to halt the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority, which has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and been described by international observers as amounting to genocide. But this is far from the only instance of discrimination. Only a matter of days ago, Human Rights Watch called on the new governor of the Indonesian capital Jakarta to uphold the rights of vulnerable economic, sexual, and religious communities in the city, who the group claims are regularly targeted by local police on account of their backgrounds.

In neighbouring Vietnam, children born as the result of rapes carried out by South Korean military personnel during the Vietnam War, known as the Lai Dai Han, are among a number of minority groups routinely shunned on account of their perceived lack of racial purity. Seoul has never recognized its crimes, nor has it provided restitution to survivors. The affair has prompting foreign politicians to take an interest in the affair, with former British foreign secretary Jack Straw calling for an international investigation into the matter, and Louisiana State Senator Troy Carter and other community leaders holding an event to commemorate the violence on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Asia.

Governments in the region have also been accelerating efforts to silence both domestic and international criticism of the deteriorating human rights situation in their countries, implementing tighter controls over free speech and cracking down on dissent. In September, the Cambodian government forced the closure of one of the country’s leading English-language newspapers, claiming it had failed to pay a multi-million dollar tax bill. The owners of the Cambodia Daily said the government’s campaign against it was politically motivated, while the US State Department condemned the tax demand as “exorbitant” and “biased”. It is no coincidence that over its 17-year history, the paper had campaigned against government corruption and championed the rights of poor villagers, who are often persecuted by the nation’s acquisitive oligarchy.

The demise of the paper was no isolated incident. It came in the wake of the banning of a number of independent radio stations across Cambodia, which were taken off the air the previous month as part of an apparent nationwide crackdown on independent media. Cambodia is scheduled to next go to polls again in July 2018 amid dismal hopes for a fair voting process.

Meanwhile, China’s growing influence in the region has done little to ameliorate the situation, having ignored or even tacitly encouraged the steady erosion of democracy, decline in human rights, and suppression of free speech across Southeast Asia in recent years. What’s more, in a sharp departure from the US’ vocal leadership on such issues, the Trump administration has been notably silent on the growth in human rights abuses, with the president failing to call out leaders of abusive regimes on his Asia tour. In fact, Trump made no mention of the deteriorating human rights situation during his visit to the Philippines, and both he and Duterte even ignoredshouted questions about Manila’s crackdown on drugs. While White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated that human rights “briefly came up”, Duterte’s spokesperson denied this was the case.

Either way, Trump – who praised Duterte in May for doing an “unbelievable job” – was hardly expected to start laying into him now, much to the disappointment among human rights groups and dissidents in the region.

As China’s influence grows in Southeast Asia and as the U.S. retreats, it is now vital that the EU does more to address the deteriorating human rights situation across the region. Calling the problem out is not enough. Brussels must now apply serious diplomatic pressure to those Southeast Asian regimes that have for some time been taking on far too many qualities of full-blown dictatorships.