Blind Eye: Duterte’s struggle vs. human rights

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 28) – The government is mandated to value the dignity of every person and guarantee full respect for human rights, according to the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

For the past six years, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte struggled to fulfill that constitutional mandate as the chief executive dealt with several issues in his approach in protecting or abusing the human rights of Filipinos.

Contentious drug war

Duterte touted his administration's war against illegal drugs as the centerpiece program of his government, when he ran for the presidency in 2016.

The "bloody" drug war claimed 6,252 fatalities and jailed 345,216 persons according to the government's monitoring platform RealNumbersPH. However, local and international human rights organizations estimated higher figures of between12,000 to 30,000 deaths caused by the anti-narcotics crackdown.

RELATED: Duterte's War on Drugs: A controversial centerpiece of a President's legacy 

Duterte's fight to beat illegal drugs exposed the police's capability to abuse its power in enforcing the law beyond its parameters, extrajudicial killings that denied a suspected drug user's right to due process, and the government's impunity to allow such a brutal approach in dealing with a societal problem that can be solved at the community level.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently expressed its interest to resume the Philippine drug war probe after it was halted in November last year. Former ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensuoda found "reasonable basis" to indict Duterte for crimes against humanity that occurred during the drug war.


The Duterte administration employed red-tagging tactics to silence its critics. Red-tagging is when a person gets harassed for being a suspected sympathizer of communist or terrorist groups.

"I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, as well as village officials, if there is any trouble, or occasions where there's violence and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead," Duterte said in a speech in April 2020 when the government ordered a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duterte often targeted human rights advocates and organizations critical of his vicious crackdown against illegal drugs. Human rights group Karapatan said 424 activists were killed, at least 1,159 persons were illegally detained, and 575,139 individuals received threats of intimidation from July 2016 to November 2021 due to their political beliefs that ran counter to the government.

The red-tagging not only focused on leftist groups who are out on the streets, but also labor and indigenous peoples organizations.

Critics emphasized the establishment of the National Task Force on Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict in 2018 legitimized the Duterte administration's red-tagging efforts as the controversial body's officials issued social media posts and official releases against those who disapprove the government's actions.

“Red-tagging is a pernicious practice that targets people who often end up being harassed or even killed,” said Carlos Conde, senior Philippines researcher of international human rights organization Human Rights Watch. “Red-tagging is rapidly shrinking the space for peaceful activism in the Philippines.” 

Attacking the watchdogs

Duterte's drug war and run-ins with several human rights organizations received much publicity from its widespread media coverage locally and globally.

With some media outlets expressing a critical stance on Duterte's tough approach in dealing with societal issues, his government clamped down on entities which are only performing their role of reporting the truth to the public.

Among the print and online news media, the Maria Ressa-led digital news platform Rappler was the most challenged by the government after their certificate of incorporation was revoked by the Securities and Exchange Commission and their journalists faced cyberlibel charges.

Ressa was even sued for tax evasion for allegedly failing to file her income tax returns . She was also the subject of Duterte's tirades in his speeches, at one time even threatening to expose the Nobel Peace Prize winner as a "fraud." 

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress denied the franchise renewal of broadcast giant ABS-CBN for alleged tax evasion, labor malpractice, biased reporting, and the supposed US citizenship of the company's former chairman Eugenio Lopez III.

TIMELINE: ABS-CBN franchise 

Duterte was adamant that he would block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN since the network did not air his political advertisements during the 2016 elections.

The Duterte government did not only implemented a crackdown on mainstream media entities, but also on the community press. As of December 2021, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said a total of 22 journalists had been killed since Duterte became president.

International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted in their 2021 report that Duterte waged a "total war" against independent media in suppressing press freedom in the country.

"Thanks to collusion at all levels within the state apparatus, Duterte has an arsenal that he can use to wage ‘total war’ against journalists, an arsenal that includes spurious charges of defamation, tax evasion, or violation of capital legislation; rescinding broadcast licenses; getting accomplices to buy up media outlets and bring their journalists into line; and using an army of trolls to subject journalists to online harassment," the organization said.

Press freedom in the Philippines continued to decline as the country slipped to 147th place out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index released a month before Duterte steps down, maintaining its status as one of the "deadliest" countries for journalists.

Under the cloak of law

The most controversial human rights effort of the Duterte administration was the move to pass Republic Act 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which repealed the Human Security Act of 2007.

The measure expanded the definition of terrorism, which include those who are committing acts that "intimidate the public, the government, or any international organization" and "seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political economic or social structures of society."

The Anti-Terror Act also granted power to the newly created Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) to designate individuals and organizations as "terrorist" without any hearing and allowed warrantless arrest and detention without charges of suspected terrorists for up to 24 days.

Government critics and social activists expressed alarm on the said law since it effectively penalizes freedom of speech and unfairly brands certain groups and persons in society who are critical of the government.

“In its fight against terrorism, the government must not be the source of terror and impunity itself. We must never let reason continue to escape us,” said former Supreme Court (SC) justice and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, one of the petitioners in assailing the legality of the controversial statute.

A total of 37 petitions were filed before the SC to question the Anti-Terrorism Act's constitutionality, making it the most challenged law in the judiciary's history.

Last December, the High Court nullified the law's Section 4 which considers an action linked to a protest, advocacy, or dissent as terrorism "if it is intended to cause death or physical harm to a person, to endanger a person's life, or to create a serious risk to public safety." The SC also struck down Section 25 on the method of designating terrorists by the ATC.

However, human rights organizations like Karapatan are not convinced that the SC decision crushed the "draconian" provisions of the controversial law.

"The Supreme Court’s decision to adopt repressive provisions — the vague and overbroad definition of ‘terrorism,’ arbitrary powers of the Anti-Terrorism Council to designate and freeze assets of individuals and organizations, and the long period of warrantless detention — will only set to worsen the already dismal human rights situation in the country,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, who also questioned the measure before the High Court.

The Duterte administration withstood the key human rights issues that plagued its six-year stay at Malacañang, but the quest for genuine protection of the ordinary Filipinos' human rights remains elusive.

"Slow judicial processes remained an obstacle to bringing government officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses to justice. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity," the United States State Department said in its 2021 Human Rights Report on the Philippines.