Protesters display placards and chant slogans as they march towards the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student, who was among the people shot dead in a recent escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

“Are you a pedophile? Why are you so fixated? I’m suspecting now. Are you gay or are you a pedophile?” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently lashed out at Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairman Chito Gascon, who has led investigations into the killing of minors in the government’s ongoing lethal drug war.

The firebrand leader insisted that “[j]ust because there are some people who died there, and even teenagers, it doesn’t mean you have to stop. We cannot stop.” Duterte’s defiant mode and vindictive attacks against his critics betrays a growing sense of worry about rising popular skepticism of his administration’s signature policy.

Duterte has clearly been taken aback by the overwhelming public reactions to the brutal police killing of teenagers, especially Kian Lloyd delos Santos, who’s murder recently sparked mass street protests in the capital. At least 7,000 people have been killed in his anti-crime campaign.

One authoritative survey showed that the first quarter of this year saw an 11% drop in public support for Duterte’s once widely popular drug war. The downward trajectory has likely accelerated due to a recent spate of unaccountable killings of several minors and rising perceptions his ruthless campaign his aimed mainly at the poor.

With few exceptions, namely the mayors of Leyete (Rolando Espinosa) and Ozamiz (Reynaldo Parojinog) cities, the vast majority of extrajudicial killing victims have been slum-dwellers and small-time drug users. Surveys also show that a majority of Filipinos want the president to prioritize bread-and-butter issues such as low wages, job creation and inflation control.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes at a heroes day ceremony in Manila, August 28, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

The Filipino president has responded to the shift in sentiment in two main ways. On one hand, he has tried to mollify public anger by issuing a rare statement of regret over the killing of minors, recognizing mistakes by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and introducing certain cosmetic reforms.

Crucially, however, he has also resorted to conspiracy theories, portraying the death of minors as part of a “destabilization plot” and “sabotage” led by his political opponents. In that direction, he has zeroed in on CHR chairman Gascon, a member of the opposition Liberal Party who was appointed to his post by former President Benigno Aquino III in 2015 for a seven-year term.

From Duterte’s perspective, the CHR has become a bastion of political opposition with the sole goal of undermining not only his drug war but also his presidency. The CHR was established by the 1987 Constitution as a deliberate institutional effort to avoid the human rights abuses that bedeviled the country during the martial law years (1971-1986) of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.

In the past year, the CHR has been on the forefront of exposing extrajudicial killings, including vigilante-style assaults, associated with Duterte’s drug war. The CHR has a broad legal mandate, with the main task of protecting the civil and political rights of all Filipino citizens.

The commission’s impossibly all-encompassing mandate has been operationally confined to large-scale human rights violations, mainly by state actors such as the national police and military. On some occasions, however, the human rights body has also investigated non-state actors such as warlords and militia groups likewise accused of committing heinous crimes.

Filipino youth hold placards near the wake of Kian Lloyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student shot dead in Duterte’s war on drugs. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Duterte’s supporters have accused the CHR of being selective in its investigations by targeting the president’s anti-drug campaign. They have singled out Gascon, accusing him of utilizing the commission as a vehicle to discredit the president and advance a political agenda.

House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a staunch Duterte supporter, has even accused the commission of siding with and protecting criminals and drug syndicates. Other Duterte backers insist that the CHR is preventing law enforcement agencies from fulfilling their anti-crime operations. Duterte recently alleged Gascon was “smitten with teenagers.”

That misinformation, perpetuated by Duterte’s well-oiled machine of online trolls and propagandists, has put the CHR on a back foot.

“It is the mandate of the CHR to ensure that there will be no abuse or negligence on the part of the government in protecting and upholding the rights of all the citizens, especially those in the margins,” the CHR said in a statement accompanied by info graphics amid public confusion over its true mandate.

“Each branch of government has a duty to observe and fulfill the rights and the needs of the citizenry. But if it is the state or the government itself that violates or denies human rights, that is when the CHR will act as the conscience of the government,” the statement said.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila earlier this year. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

The CHR’s reports are widely cited not only by the local and international media, but also serve as reference for international bodies, including the United Nations as well as the International Criminal Court, which is closely evaluating accusations of crimes against humanity committed under Duterte’s watch.

In a turn from his past fusillades on international criticism of his drug war, Duterte on Monday invited the United Nations human rights agency to establish an office in the Philippines to monitor the campaign. At the same time, it is thus widely believed that Duterte was instrumental in a recent congressional decision to defund the CHR.

The lower house of Congress, a haven of pro-Duterte politicians, voted during recent budget deliberations to give the CHR a mere US$20 for fiscal year 2018, a far cry from the over US$12 million proposed by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). As a constitutional body, the CHR can not be unilaterally abolished by either the president or Congress unless an entirely new constitution is drafted.

The more independent Senate will likely intervene and push for an amount closer to the originally proposed budget, which Duterte had suggested should be diverted to buy more body cameras for drug-fighting police to improve transparency. Yet it’s clear Duterte is intent on snuffing out all opposition and resistance to his drug war and in the process march the country towards less, not more, transparency.

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