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How the Philippines’ human rights crisis has worsened whilst dealing with COVID-19

By Julieanne Acosta, May 21, 2021—

Trigger warning: sexual assault, murder

The Philippines has one of the longest and strictest lockdown policies in the world, yet is still seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. The country reported 4,721 new cases on May 11, 2021, totalling 56,778 active cases. Their recent spike in cases began in April with the highest peak at 203,708 active cases in mid-April. Despite the extreme measures implemented, the cases continue to rise with new variant cases being found. The president’s decisions have shown the infectiveness of these — arguably — draconian measures. 

Since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, the Philippines has been on international watch for the government’s approach to the war on drugs which has resulted in 8,000 citizens killed — by the end of 2018, the number was estimated to be as high as 27,000. The human rights crisis has only worsened as time has gone on, especially due to the global pandemic. Duterte has proven himself to be unequipped and unable to be leading the country. The laws he has enacted on citizens and the media have only demonstrated how his leadership and methods have become ruthless and cold. He is further known for his controversial comments such as, 

“I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

  • April 2016: Duterte joked in his presidential campaign about an Australian missionary who was raped. His comments caused an uproar from Australian and American ambassadors with which he attempted an apology by saying “it’s my style, it’s my mouth.” 

“Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a b*tch. Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.” 

  • June 2016: The Philippines has a notoriously high murder rate of journalists. Since 1992, at least 75 journalists have been murdered. Notably, many of these journalists were investigating official corruption. The above quote was his response when asked about it in a press conference. 

“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews […] there’s 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

  • September 2016: Prior to this, Duterte made a comment saying, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [gestured towards himself].” In his own beliefs, Duterte has firmly stated that killing this generation of drug users would stop the next generation. 

These comments, alongside many more, have shown the outside world how the Philippines’ leader has upheld himself throughout his presidency. However, the surprising part is that Duterte still has widespread support in the Philippines. His promise for change has kept his support high amongst Filipinos living in the Philippines and abroad. In 2020, the Philippines ranked third deadliest country for journalists with Duterte and his government claiming to work at restraining impunity. What’s worrisome here is that despite this comment, Duterte’s statements, which are widely advertised, suggest that the murder of drug addicts at the hands of the police or civilians will be praised rather than condemned. 

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has stated that 4,948 suspected drug users and dealers lost their lives in police operations from the beginning of July 2016 to the end of September 2018. However, that number significantly rises to 22,983 deaths when those carried out by unidentified gunmen are included. The majority of these killings — despite the Philippine National Police classifying them as “homicides under investigation” — are yet to be investigated. 

Back in 2017, BBC News interviewed three loyal supporters. The main reason was supporting the war on drugs, alongside Duterte’s anti-corruption policy. In the past, the Philippines has struggled endlessly with corrupt leadership. In his campaign and subsequent presidency, Duterte has managed to coerce his citizens into believing that he is different than any past administration that may be seen as corrupt. 

The concerning part is that these tactics towards drugs, no matter how barbaric they are, will not end drug use and the Duterte administration along with his supporters are yet to realize that. Duterte has associated drug users with being rapists, pedophiles and murderers throughout his campaign. This only vilifies drug users and dealers to the general public. Yet, he expects drug users to self-surrender and to go into a drug rehabilitation center. By advertising this notion with threatening remarks and villainizing drug users, the problem will never be fixed and the Philippines will continually have a drug problem. 

This strategy against drug users and dealers has never and will never work. Criminalizing drug use only allows for more violence in any given society. By criminalizing drug use, the price of those illicit drugs on the black market goes up because they become more and more valuable. As drugs shoot up in value, the hunt for them becomes more intense, thus resulting in more violence in the black market. Furthermore, it is ignorant to truly believe that killing off drug users will end drug use once and for all in any country. Any and all countries that have attempted their own war on drugs have never successfully ended drug use as a whole. 

Despite the human rights violations, the president currently holds a 91 per cent approval rating in the heat of the COVID-19 crisis. The way the president upholds himself to the rest of the population only makes them approve of him more. However, this is another point of matter where Duterte’s harsh tactics have shown their ineffectiveness once again. In 2020, Duterte told his security forces to shoot anyone causing any sort of trouble in lockdown areas.

Moreover, he has recently ordered the police to arrest anybody wearing a mask incorrectly or not all. Though mask-wearing is vital, arresting people on this basis could result in horrible consequences for the Philippines. Duterte has not thought through how the country’s detention facilities, along with most prisons in the world, are at a higher risk for a COVID-19 outbreak. By putting any person not wearing a mask correctly into these prisons, the facility will become overcrowded and only further the spread of COVID-19.

Duterte’s administration’s highly-militarized response has increased fear across the nation. There are many checkpoints throughout the country that are controlled by armed police who have been encouraged to shoot down lockdown violators. The strictest lockdown measure that has been enacted is the Enhanced Community Quarantine where residents must stay indoors unless they have a pass to go out and buy essentials. Additionally, each local district may set up their own rules. 

Not to mention that the country’s media has been heavily impacted by a new law that criminalizes spreading false information with up to two months of incarceration, a fine or both. It is worth noting that some of these convictions prevent citizens from expressing their opposition to the government online. Further, the Anti-Terrorism Act that was put into place during Duterte’s presidency allows for detention without a warrant for 24 days as well as an interrogation of anybody who seems like a terrorist. 

Though his supporters do not see how this could be seen as corrupt, it is clear that this is a route for the government to take if or when someone goes against them. They are able to define what a “terrorist” is and are also at liberty to decide what is “fake news.” As a result, because the government has given itself that power and has obtained their country’s approval, it becomes more effortless for the government to shut down anyone who is against them. 

The government’s COVID-19 response, along with Duterte’s history as president, has only become more and more alarming with the government’s increased control over the country. It is more important than ever to spread awareness for those who can’t. The long-term effects of this continuing will only increase the government’s hold on the country and could potentially result in a dictatorship. The fact that Duterte was able to still achieve a 91 per cent approval rating amongst his citizen is horrific to the rest of the world — yet it goes to show how well his administration has managed to gain the unwavering trust of their citizens. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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