The Pros and Cons of a Rodrigo Duterte Candidacy
- Duterte has been mayor for seven terms, presiding in total for more than 22 years. He has also served as vice mayor and congressman in the city.
- Supporters like Duterte's "straight-talk" and his record of achievement in Davao, the largest city in the Philippines by geographic size, which ranks as one of the most progressive areas in the country.
- “A lot of Filipinos like Rody’s charisma and they believe he brought down the murder rate. People see him the way that, say, Wyatt Earp [a wild west lawman] would have been seen in Tombstone, Arizona.
- Duterte’s fans span the political spectrum: from arch-conservative senators in Manila to Jose Maria Sison, the exiled leader of the communist New People’s Army.
- It is outrageous that a man running for president can openly boast about illegal extrajudicial killings that he committed instead of being held accountable.
- His most controversial policy is what some call a “zero tolerance approach to crime”. Others, particularly human rights activists, prefer to term it an “endorsement of summary executions”.
- Contrary to expectations, the Davao Death Squad has not reduced crime. In the decade since the squad began operating, crime in Davao City has mushroomed ten times faster than the population.
- People who applaud extrajudicial responses to crime are the same people who will demand due process when it is their turn to feel the state’s boot on their neck.
The front-runner for the presidential race in the Philippines has admitted on national radio that he killed at least three men suspected of kidnapping and rape in his city, drawing condemnation from international rights groups who warned against an escalating "culture of impunity" in the country.
Amnesty International urged Philippine prosecutors to look into Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of the southern city of Davao, who said in an interview that shooting "criminals" is justifiable.
"It's a graphic example [of the culture of impunity in the Philippines] that even though people know what he has been doing, no single charge has been filed against him," Ritz Lee Santos III, head of Amnesty in the Philippines, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
"Human rights is not a joke," Santos added.
The Philippines: Living with the Disappeared
In an interview with a national radio program, Duterte recounted that three months into his first term as mayor in 1988, three rape and kidnapping suspects had demanded a ransom from the family of the victim.
Duterte, 70, said that when the armed suspects showed up to collect the money, he did not hesitate in shooting them dead.
"I was part of it. Actually, I was the most active and I even emptied two magazines of my .45 [handgun] ," he said in a mix of Filipino and English.
Copycat 'summary executions' spreading in the Philippines?
A day earlier, the mayor, who is known for his sarcasm, told reporters in Manila that he killed about 1,700, when asked if he was connected to the alleged summary executions of 700 people.
According to the latest nationwide polls ahead of the May 2016 election, Duterte has a solid lead against his rivals, including the incumbent vice president, Jejomar Binay, and Manuel Roxas III, a former senator endorsed by President Benigno Aquino.
Supporters previously told Al Jazeera that they like Duterte's "straight-talk" and his record of achievement in Davao, the largest city in the Philippines by geographic size, which ranks as one of the most progressive areas in the country.
Duterte has been mayor for seven terms, presiding in total for more than 22 years. He has also served as vice mayor and congressman in the city.
But he has also gained some critics recently and was forced to apologise when he was caught cursing Pope Francis, a very popular figure in the Catholic-majority country.
Azadeh N Shahshahani, a United States lawyer who has investigated human rights cases in the Philippines, however, said Duterte's human rights record raises some alarms.
"It is outrageous that a man running for president can openly boast about illegal extrajudicial killings that he committed instead of being held accountable," she told Al Jazeera.
"As our tribunal found, impunity for egregious human rights violations is a serious and ongoing problem in the Philippines, as exhibited in this case."
'Callous and dangerous'
Philippines is fourth most deadly place for journalists: report
In the past, media critics have also been targets of Duterte's ire.
In 2011, he flashed his middle finger on national television, as he scolded "columnists" who criticised his politician-daughter, who was involved in beating a court sheriff.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that for a country with one of the highest unresolved media murder rates in the world, Duterte's latest declaration is "a callous and dangerous message Filipinos should reject not embrace".
"The Philippines needs its next national leader to end, not promote, impunity in extrajudiciary killings," he told Al Jazeera.
"Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte's recent public comments about personally killing suspected criminals insinuates he would govern with unchecked force, rather than rule by law."
According to the CPJ, there have been 77 journalists killed in the Philippines since 1992, with the Philippines ranking fourth in the worldwide murder index, behind Somalia, Iraq, and Syria.
From New York, Robert Dietz, Asia coordinator of CPJ, also weighed in on Duterte's candidacy, comparing him to presidential candidates in the US who are "trying to outdo one another with ever more tough-guy, hardline posturing".
Dietz said that it would be "tragic" if Duterte's "gun-slinging tactics" are elevated to the national level, in a country where the world's bloodiest one-time massacre of journalists occurred in 2009.
"The Philippines should not return to the past, when Ferdinand Marcos, another populist candidate, came into power as a reformist, only to become a dictator," said Dietz, a long-time journalist who had covered Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, for CNN and Asiaweek magazine.
From Southeast Asia GLOBE
Davao is not your typical Southeast Asian city. The air is clear and the pace relaxed. The Philippines’ customary – and customised – SUVs, motorbikes and iconic jeepneys queue calmly on the roads, freezing at crossings and edging slowly off the mark when the light goes green. Pedestrians stroll patiently on spotless pavements. Nobody in sight smokes or drinks due to an outdoor ban on these vices. After dark there is little nightlife in Davao, and all bars and liquor stores shut at 1am.
Such an orderly way of life has much to do with the stringent governance of the current mayor of Davao, Rodrigo S. Duterte, commonly known as Rody. His most controversial policy is what some call a “zero tolerance approach to crime”. Others, particularly human rights activists, prefer to term it an “endorsement of summary executions”.
From time to time, the peace and quiet of Davao City is disrupted by groups of men in baseball caps pulling over on motorbikes and stabbing or shooting a known criminal, often a drug dealer or juvenile recidivist. According to Amnesty International, about 1,000 people have been executed in this fashion since 2001, when Duterte came to power.
While “The Punisher”, as he’s been dubbed by Time magazine, denies any personal responsibility for these murders, Duterte’s public remarks make it clear as a bullet to the head where he stands on what is known as the Davao Death Squad. On his weekly TV show he told any lawbreaker watching: “You will not survive; you can leave either vertically or horizontally.” To the Philippine Inquirer he said: “Criminals have no place in the city, except in gaols, detention centres and, God forbid, in funeral parlours.” When questioned about an infamous rice smuggler, Duterte answered in homage to film director Sam Peckinpah: “Just bring me the head of Ryan Yu.” The local press have nicknamed him ‘Duterte Harry’.
However, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, alleges that Duterte’s administration goes further than mere verbal threats – policemen and government functionaries are thought to train and arm death squad members, help them compile hit lists and tip them off as to the whereabouts of the target. The killers act with relative impunity thanks to a lackadaisical and complicit police force, as well as witnesses who are too terrified to testify, according to Roth.
So how does Duterte – a former human rights lawyer no less – get away with advocating the extrajudicial killing of his own constituents, some of them no older than 14? One answer is his broad popularity.
Luis H. Francia, adjunct professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, New York, met Duterte in the early 1990s. “A lot of Filipinos like Rody’s charisma and they believe he brought down the murder rate,” he said. “People see him the way that, say, Wyatt Earp [a wild west lawman] would have been seen in Tombstone, Arizona.”
Moreover, Duterte’s fans span the political spectrum: from arch-conservative senators in Manila to Jose Maria Sison, the exiled leader of the communist New People’s Army. Duterte is also a shrewd politico, winning over those liberals and leftists who object to his stance on crime with other, more progressive social and environmental policies. In defiance of big business, he has banned mining across Davao City, “because it destroys our land and our forests”, and has created initiatives to modestly improve the health, education and social mobility of Davao’s poorest inhabitants.
Equally crucial is that many locals are inclined to agree with Duterte because they see a certain logic in vigilantism. The use of guns to settle disputes and vendettas is not uncommon in the Philippines, a nation where 3.9 million citizens own firearms and that ranks 25th in the world for per capita shooting crimes. Mistrust of the official justice system – blighted as it is by abuse, corruption and ineptitude – is pervasive. The law-abiding poor suffer the most from unchecked criminality and some are grateful for what Rudy Encabo, head of Davao’s Public Safety and Security Command Centre, called “the rest-in-peace solution”.
Alfredo P. Torreo, a Davao taxi driver who works 48-hour shifts to support his family of seven, recalls the evening he got home to find that the gang who’d been terrorising his slum neighbourhood was no more. “One day they were there trying to sell drugs to my kids and beating up my friends, and the next [they were] gone,” he said. “It was a big, big relief for me to have this problem no longer.”
The question remains whether Davao’s extreme form of violent ‘justice’ simply engenders more violence. Encabo argued that the death squad has made Davao the most peaceful city in the archipelago. “We have had very low crime rates for the duration of the mayor’s terms of office,” he said. “Davao is surrounded by the troubled areas of Mindanao so it is critical that we keep our city safe for our people and for tourism.”
Kenneth Roth’s findings, however, are quite different. “Contrary to expectations, the Davao Death Squad has not reduced crime,” he wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review. “In the decade since [the squad] began operating, crime in Davao City has mushroomed ten times faster than the population.”
There is also a stench of hypocrisy about Davao’s ruling officials – who the local media accuse of misappropriation of public money, pork barrel scams and downright theft – engineering the deaths of penniless and powerless individuals who hold up 7-Elevens and pickpocket tourists.
As Red Constantino of the human rights group International Accountability Project puts it: “People who applaud extrajudicial responses to crime are the same people who will demand due process when it is their turn to feel the state’s boot on their neck.”