Asian Editors Circle

Can the world hold Duterte to account?

Against the illegal drug trade in his country, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has let slip the dogs of war - and the ensuing havoc includes thousands of dead Filipinos, most of them poor. As he prepares to mark a year in office at the end of this month, those who are anguished about the killings ask: Can the community of nations play a role in holding Mr Duterte to account?

The answer is complicated.

The case can be made that constitutional remedies have been all but exhausted. Impeachment is not an option. The controversial practice, copied from American political tradition, has played a role in unseating a president, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, and an ombudsman (the government's chief graft-buster) in the space of only a dozen years. It is a potent tool, especially given the constitutional provision allowing a mere third of the membership of the House of Representatives to directly send the impeachable official to trial in the Senate.

But the House is firmly in the grip of Mr Duterte's so-called super-majority, and a potentially strong impeachment complaint against him was dismissed last month. A constitutional provision prevents the House from considering more than one impeachment complaint against an official every 12 months; last month's dismissal effectively inoculates Mr Duterte from another impeachment filing until next May.

On the issue of the anti-drug campaign's extrajudicial killings, both chambers have essentially resolved to look away. The evidence presented by two confessed assassins who testified, against their self-interest, that they took orders to kill from Mr Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City was ridiculed or trivialised in the Senate, except as a basis to file charges against the two. And the House played a shameful role in laundering so-called evidence against Senator Leila de Lima, Mr Duterte's staunchest critic. She has since been arrested and is in detention.

Proclamation No. 216, which imposed martial law on the whole of Mindanao after the educational centre of Marawi City was overrun by terrorists seeking to align with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria network, is a wish come true for Mr Duterte. He has frequently discussed what he describes as the necessity of invoking the so-called commander-in-chief powers; in August 2015, while exploring a presidential candidacy, he was open enough about his plans to establish a "constitutional dictatorship" or a "revolutionary government".

But Mr Duterte's assertion of the martial law prerogative has been received timidly by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Instead of convening a joint session to deliberate on the proclamation, the super-majorities in each chamber insisted a joint session was necessary only if Congress wanted to revoke, rather than affirm, the imposition of martial law. Then each chamber promptly passed resolutions affirming Proclamation 216. (Apparently, self-awareness and institutional dignity are not high on the list of values held by Mr Duterte's Congress.)

But the case can also be made - for now at least - that other institutions are helping to keep Mr Duterte in check. The Supreme Court continues to hear cases that have the potential to unsettle the Duterte administration. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has acted with hard-won professionalism. Media organisations, despite orchestrated social media attacks against journalists, have continued to report the hard and necessary news. The Catholic Church, whose nationwide network is the country's most extensive, is helping both the survivors of the anti-drug campaign and repentant former members of the Davao Death Squad.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly and categorically denied killing anyone on at least two occasions, after a "communication" and a supplemental communication were filed with the Office of the ICC Prosecutor, calling for an investigation into alleged "crimes against humanity" perpetrated or masterminded by Mr Duterte. PHOTO: REUTERS

It cannot be denied, though. The arithmetic of appellate-court collegiality actually favours Mr Duterte; in another two months he would have appointed four justices to the 15-person Supreme Court. The military enjoys an advantage it can easily lose; professional officers are replaceable. Journalists labour under a much more hostile environment. And the institutional Church is slowed by internal conflict between those who support and those who resist Mr Duterte.

There is also the matter of the President's popularity. A year into his single term, he continues to enjoy majority support. (In 2009, then President Gloria Arroyo imposed martial law in the province of Maguindanao. Her unpopularity helped lead the chambers of Congress to promptly convene a joint session. Some of the same lawmakers who voted to convene then voted against it now - scratch the surface of their statements, and one finds presidential popularity as a deciding factor.)

But beneath the survey headlines lies a much more complicated reality. While a great majority of voting-age Filipinos say, consistently, that they support Mr Duterte's anti-drug campaign, about three-fourths of survey respondents also say they do not want suspects in the campaign to be killed. About the same proportion of Filipinos say - and this is where grim reality rears its head - that they fear they will be the next victims of Mr Duterte's war.

What can be done, then, if the usual correctives against presidential excesses (a staunch Senate in Mrs Arroyo's time, a stubborn Supreme Court during the presidency of Mr Benigno Aquino III) will no longer be available?

It is not the Asean way to get involved in domestic politics; as exasperating as Mr Duterte's about-face on China is to many of Manila's Asean partners, it is difficult to imagine Mr Duterte receiving even a friendly word of advice from a fellow head of state. Mr Duterte's closeness to both China and Russia is based in part on a no-criticism arrangement. On the other hand, and from the start of his presidency, he has taken the United Nations, the United States and the European Union to task - essentially daring them to take their business, their interests, elsewhere.

The UN's special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, lawyer Agnes Callamard, has been actively monitoring reports of human rights abuses committed in the anti-drug campaign, but the government says she is not welcome to return to the Philippines. To be sure, it is difficult to imagine the UN or the EU dropping its human rights advocacy merely because Mr Duterte refuses to listen, but the question of influence is a legitimate one.

That leaves the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A "communication" and a supplemental communication have been filed with the Office of the ICC Prosecutor, calling for an investigation into alleged "crimes against humanity" perpetrated or masterminded by Mr Duterte. The filing may have momentarily spooked the President; on at least two occasions, he publicly and categorically denied killing anyone. But the moment passed; he is back to making outrageous statements about personally killing criminals. Will ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda take notice?

  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Can the world hold Duterte to account?'. Print Edition | Subscribe