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Rodrigo Duterte

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Duterte and the ICC

Here’s the good news. Last February the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity committed by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines as part of his ‘war on drugs’.

Now for the bad news. True to form, Duterte replied that the Treaty of Rome which created the ICC was “all bullshit” and that the court was only backed by “white idiots”. He then announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC “effective immediately”.

Actually, he may not be able to do that unilaterally, because the Rome Treaty was ratified by the Senate of the Philippines and probably has to be abrogated by the same body. (Legal opinions vary.) But Duterte does control the Senate and could do it eventually, if he cared about legality.

He’d still have legal problems, because the Philippines was subject to the treaty when he ordered many of his murders. Even if the Senate did cancel the treaty, the country would stay subject to it for another year. But nobody is going to arrest Duterte now, and he doesn’t seem worried about the future either.

Duterte later warned that any UN investigator arriving in the country would be arrested. Having settled the matter to his own entire satisfaction, he then went back to killing people. Death threats and death squads are his favourite political instruments, and his weird political charisma would evaporate if he wasn’t killing people.

He is not too picky about who does the work for him, either. Ten months ago he pulled the national police from his ‘war on drugs’ because they were “corrupt to the core”. (True.) But the number of killings dropped because the specialised anti-narcotics force, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, lacked the manpower to keep the killing rate up.

By May, therefore, Duterte was letting the national police take part in the drug raids again. His sole concession to reality was to gather a hundred police who were facing complaints of rape, kidnapping and robbery and tell them last week, on national television, that they too would face summary execution if they didn’t straighten up. “If you’ll stay like this, son of a bitch, I will really kill you,” he said.

So Duterte is undeterred by ICC’s interest in his case and the slaughter continues unabated. Official statistics say that 4,000 small-time drug dealers (and cases of mistaken identity) have been killed; the 77-page report submitted to the ICC by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio says more than 8,000. Yet public approval of his actions is not far down from the landslide support he got in the 2016 election.

Everybody knows that in these circumstances, there is zero probability of Duterte having to answer for his actions before a court. Even later, when circumstances may have changed, the chances of bringing him to justice are slim. So what is the point of bringing an ICC case against him?

One reason is that this is the first major ICC investigation that targets a non-African regime. There were good reasons why all previous ones involved African regimes: the continent is home to one-third of the world’s countries, most of its dictatorships, and most of its wars. Nevertheless, even competent, law-abiding African governments were starting to feel victimised, and it helps to have an Asian country on the list.

But more importantly, this is part of a much broader initiative to bring the rule of law to a domain where legal justice was previously unavailable. Where can individual citizens turn to get protection of their own rights (including the right to life) against the government of a sovereign state that does not obey its own laws? Like that of Rodrigo Duterte.

Obviously, this enterprise is not doing very well at the moment. The governments of the great powers refuse to let any higher court have jurisdiction over their treatment of their own citizens, and even lesser powers cannot be forced to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which has neither an army nor a police force. Duterte will probably never have to answer for his crimes.

No surprise here. Most crimes go unpunished everywhere, and there will never be universal justice. Nevertheless, the effort to create an international legal order is worthwhile, and not foredoomed.

The ICC was not created to overthrow people like Rodrigo Duterte, who was, after all, elected by the Filipino voting public. Its real function is provide a legal pathway for punishing the members of a criminal regime AFTER it has collapsed – and if possible to make that eventual legal reckoning so certain that it is even deters those criminals who are still in power.

So it is doing what it should, and it’s far too early to say that its actions are futile.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He is…he said”)

Duterte: Mass Murderer in Power

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.

He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.

On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.

Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.

That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.

It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.

Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.

It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.

The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015 (but up to six per 100,000 people in 2016 due to Duterte’s killing spree).

In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the ‘extrajudicial’ murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.

Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.

He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.

Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.

He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“On Sunday…self-awareness”; and (“Amphetamine…people”)

Duterte and the UN

Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, gives good copy. Here’s a quote from his final election rally: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”

And here’s another, from last Sunday, after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime condemned Mr Duterte’s “apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings.”

“I do not want to insult you,” Duterte said. (He only called them “stupid”.) “But maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you are that rude, we might just as well leave. So take us out of your organisation. You have done nothing. Never. Except to criticise.”

What upset Ban Ki-moon and the UNDOC is the fact that Duterte is having people murdered. Since he took office three months ago, some 900 “suspected drug-dealers” have been shot dead by police and civilian vigilantes acting in his name. None was found guilty by a court, and some, of course, were completely innocent.

Duterte is not denying it or apologising. Before he leaves office, he says, he’ll just give himself an amnesty: “Pardon given to Rodrigo Duterte for the crime of multiple murder, signed Rodrigo Duterte.”

“The Punisher”, as he was known when he was mayor of Davao, is very serious about his “war on drugs”: he recently said he would kill his own children if they took drugs. But crime is not the Philippines’ biggest problem, and it’s not clear what else he is serious about.

He talks vaguely about making the Philippines a federal country, but no details of his policies and plans have emerged. In fact, he has spent most of the time since his election down south in his Davao stronghold, not in Manila.

But he does have a plan of sorts for what to do after he walks out of the United Nations. He says he may ask China and African countries to walk out too and form a rival organisation. He doesn’t know much about China or Africa, so maybe he thinks they would like to get together and defy the parts of the world where governments believe that killing people is wrong.

“Duterte Harry” (another nickname) is very popular in the Philippines, but he is not really a threat to global order. The hundred million Filpinos will have to live with him for the next six years, but the United Nations is not doomed. In fact, it is doing better than most people give it credit for.

One proof of this is the fact that the Secretary General now has the right to criticise a member government merely for killing its own citizens. That’s not what it was designed for. When it was created in 1945, as the catastrophe of the Second World War was ending, its main goal was to prevent any more wars like that.

The founders tried to give it the appearance of a broader moral force by signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but that was mainly window-dressing. The UN was created by the great powers to prevent any government from launching another war of international aggression, not to make governments treat their own citizens better.

In fact, each major power was effectively guaranteed the right to do whatever it wanted to its own citizens, so long as it did not attack the neighbours. In this, the new UN was just recognising reality, for every great power was determined to preserve its own “sovereignty”. Even for smaller powers, the great powers could rarely agree on what kind of intervention was desirable, and who should do it.

The UN has done well in its original task: it shares the credit with nuclear weapons for the fact that no great power has fought any other for the past 71 years. It has gradually moved into other areas like peace-keeping and promoting the rule of law in the world, but it never interferes inside the territory of the great powers. Even in smaller countries it almost never intervenes without the invitation of the local government.

So when Duterte called the UN useless because “if you are really true to your mandate, you could have stopped all these wars and killings,” he was talking through his hat. Besides, he would never accept UN intervention in his own country to deal with an alleged crime wave. He’s just talking tough because he hates being criticised.

It’s very unlikely that he will carry out his threat. The UN is the keystone in the structure of international law that, among many other things, deters China from settling its territorial dispute with the Philippines by force. Rodrigo Duterte is just a problem for the Philippines, not for the UN or the world.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“He talks…Manila”; and “In fact…it”)