Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s repression has entered a dangerous and potentially more damaging phase as he aims to block foreign scrutiny of his policies and rule.
In recent days, the strongman ruler has barred a European Union party official from entering the country, detained an Australian nun and threatened to arrest an International Criminal Court investigator if she travels to the Philippines.
The threats and moves are placing the Philippines in the same unsavory league as other pariah authoritarian states that regularly and often incredulously refute foreign criticism and examination of their rights records.
Duterte has cracked down hard on his domestic critics, ranging from politicians to judges to media groups, who have challenged his controversial lethal anti-drug war and criticized his alleged frequent abuse of executive power.
Now, his government is taking similarly hard aim at his legion of foreign critics. In an unprecedented move, the government expelled a high-level European Union party official upon his entry into the country earlier this month.
Giacomo Filibeck, deputy secretary-general of the Party of European Socialists (PES), the second largest bloc in the European Parliament, was denied entry at the Nactan-Cebu International Airport in the central Philippines on April 15.
The European party official was due to attend the two-day party congress of Akbayan party, a left-leaning group that is part of a small opposition bloc in the Philippine legislature, along with 20 other foreign delegates.
The Philippine Bureau of Immigration justified Filibeck’s temporary detention and later expulsion on the ground that he was on a blacklist for engaging in “illegal political activity.”
The PES protested “in the strongest possible terms the unjustified detention and deportation” of one of its senior officials.
PES President Sergei Stanishev described the incident as “unacceptable” while condemning how a senior European parliamentarian could be “treated as a criminal on orders of the government and forcibly deported from the country.”
He described Filibeck’s manhandling as part of a campaign to “silence criticism of [Duterte’s] deadly policies both at home and abroad.”
The summary detention and unceremonious expulsion of the European party official was most likely motivated by his leading of a fact-finding mission for a delegation of European parliamentarians who visited areas affected by Duterte’s drug war.
During that visit, the group expressed their opposition to the campaign’s widespread extrajudicial killings across the country. Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group, has estimated as many as 12,000 people have been killed in the nearly two-year-old brutal campaign.
In response, an incensed Duterte threatened to expel all European officials from the country, marking a new nadir in what historically have been warm Philippine-Europe relations.
Over the succeeding months, the European Union sought to assuage Philippine government concerns by dissociating itself from the PES delegation and its fact-finding mission.
It has also sought to find a new modus vivendi to ensure EU aid to the Philippines isn’t entangled by political differences over Duterte’s human rights record.
While there has been some recent improvement in Brussels’ relations with Manila, Duterte has shown little patience for his European Parliament critics. He has also shown a rising intolerance for critics from other Western countries.
Days after Filibeck’s expulsion, the Filipino president personally ordered the detention of an elderly Australian Catholic nun on similar charges of engaging in illegal partisan activities.
Officials from the immigration bureau arrested and detained Sister Patricia Fox, 71, overnight for allegedly participating in “political activities and anti-government demonstrations.” She was later released for lack of evidence amid a massive public backlash.
A missionary of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, a Catholic congregation, Fox participated in an international fact-finding mission in the southern Philippines earlier this month. Her team sought to examine reported human rights violations against indigenous groups and farmers by state security officials.
Duterte, who has recently stepped up his crackdown against suspected communist elements across the country, including among indigenous people’s groups, saw the mission as a partisan activity aimed at discrediting his government.
Human rights groups as well as the Catholic Church were quick to condemn the incident.
Amnesty International criticized Fox’s warrantless arrest and detention as “despicable”, while warning the successive arrests of two foreign visitors “shows the international community that the democratic space in the Philippines is shrinking.”
Manila Catholic Bishop Broderick Pabillo lamented that “there is no humanity here” in speaking of Duterte’s “tendency of being dictatorial.”
Prominent politicians have also joined the chorus of criticism, as the Philippine media stepped up its coverage of the nun’s detention and harassment.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, an independent legislator, condemned the incident as “embarrassing” and berated the government for “arrest[ing] someone based on wrong information.”
His colleague, Senator Nancy Binay, criticized the incident as an “excessive use of authority”, while suggesting officials should instead pursue Chinese drug cartels and other foreigners engaged in drug trafficking rather than an elderly nun.
In apparent response, the Presidential Palace promised to issue a formal apology for Fox’s wrongful detention. Still, Duterte is expected to ramp up his intimidation of foreign critics in a new bid to block outside scrutiny of his government’s already well-documented rights abuses.
In that direction, the Filipino president recently threatened to arrest Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda if she attempted to enter the Philippines to conduct investigations into his drug war and wider rights record.
Duterte recently ordered the withdrawal of his country from the ICC amid a preliminary examination into separate complaints accusing Duterte of crimes against humanity.
The Philippines will remain under the Netherlands-based court’s jurisdiction until next year, when the withdrawal will officially take effect.
But while Duterte bids to block outside scrutiny of his policies and alleged abuses, there is likely already enough evidence at hand to pursue targeted sanctions and possibly even international court proceedings for command control of crimes against humanity.