Protests against extrajudicial killings in Philippines
Protests against extrajudicial killings in Philippines

The wave of right-wing political movements hit Southeast Asia last summer when Rodrigo Duterte, known as “The Punisher”, was elected as President of the Philippines. The former mayor of Davao City, Duterte became notorious for his hard right policies and brash comments during his presidential campaign – much like Donald Trump’s campaign. One of Duterte’s main political platforms was to put an end to the drug epidemic in the country.

As mayor for over two decades, he implemented strict policies such as a liquor ban, night time curfew, and prohibitions on smoking and crime. Minors, under the age of 18, are not allowed outside between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. without adult supervision. Bars and clubs that serve alcohol must call out their last call at 1am and ensure that everyone leaves the establishment. Supporters of Duterte state that these restrictions have lowered the crime rate in Davao City and made people feel safer overall.

Surprisingly, Davao City is also home to legal prostitution. Although forced prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, Davao City has created a loophole by eliminating the role of pimps. So while the police do not interfere, it is mandated that all prostitutes carry health cards as officers from the health department occasionally come by to check on them. The decreased crime rates allows women the autonomy to choose a profession like prostitution with little risk.

President Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte


One of Duterte’s main campaign promises was to eradicate crime throughout the nation by implementing the same policies he used in Davao City. He promised his supporters that if elected, he would ensure that over 100,000 criminals were brought to justice, or in other words – executed. Since taking office at the end of June, more than 1000 people have already died under his authority due to the Davao Death Squad that formed shortly after his presidency.

The controversy arose when human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, reported that members of a death squad – made up of citizens – were killing presumed criminals and drug addicts. The report also claimed that there was evidence that Duterte himself was associated with this death squad. During his presidential campaign, Duterte has repeatedly told reporters that he has not personally directed the killings of the death squad but he has certainly praised their efforts and encouraged their behavior.

“If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.” – Duterte to a reporter in 2009

The lack of proper policing, bureaucratic apathy, and a failed justice system has enabled vigilantes like the Davao Death Squad to carry out these extrajudicial killings in the name of crime prevention. Oftentimes, victims are children or teens, – some involved with drugs but others who are simply poor or homeless – and others are people who have committed petty crime. As many international organizations and countries condemn the actions – or inaction – of President Duterte and urge him to interfere on behalf of the victims, he has firmly refused to change his policies.

After constant criticisms from the United Nations on his anti-drug policies, Duterte has suggested that the Philippines will withdraw from the United Nations if they continue to criticize his efforts without providing real support. He also sharply accused the U.N. of throwing criticisms when it has done little to curb the influence of Islamic radicalism growing in the Philippines over the last decade. One of Duterte’s critics had been President Barack Obama, who had been building a relationship with the Filipino nation over the course of his presidency.

Duterte meeting with John Kerry - July 2016
Duterte meeting with John Kerry – July 2016

In a planned meeting with President Obama last fall, the two leaders were to discuss US-Philippines relations and Obama stated he was going to pursue the issue of extrajudicial killings and its numerous human rights violations. President Duterte claimed that the Philippines was no longer a colony of the United States – referring to almost 50 years of occupation by the U.S. – and therefore not obliged to listen to their former colonizer. He indicated that if the United States wasn’t willing to comply with his terms, then he would seek an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Much of what the Filipino president does and says mirrors our own newly elected president, Donald Trump. There have been a number of social blunders that have caught the media’s attention, including a comment about a deceased rape victim which stated that she was too pretty and it was unfortunate that he did not get a chance first. Duterte himself has acknowledged that there are similarities between him and Trump and has indicated that he would look forward to negotiations with the new U.S. administration. Trump in turn, has given his support to Duterte’s administration and the ‘way they’re handling crime’.

It seems there is a global shift to more radical right-wing conservative policies in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The liberal agenda in many of these places is being overthrown by a more nationalist movement that emphasizes isolationist principles of focusing solely on domestic priorities. This shift will affect the way global aid is given and received, in addition to the new role international institutions will play in an era where their authority is questioned and undermined.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.