ALMOST a year and a half into office, the culture of impunity that the Duterte administration failed to curb, but instead fanned and institutionally-enabled, first through the drug war, and now a dirty war against its perceived political enemies including progressive grassroots organizations has become this administration’s trademark.
There is a unifying logic that unites these iron-hand tactics against what the administration has labeled as enemies of the state. And this can be seen in the outright disdain and rejection that Duterte himself has expressed again and again over internationally-accepted human rights standards.
Remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in the September 1948 General Assembly of the United Nations by member states including Philippines should be the starting point of all discussion regarding human rights. It is not clear, however, whether the advisers of the president are just plain unschooled about the origins and evolution of western human rights discourse or they are trying to resuscitate a human rights ideology of long-ago, one that is tailor-fitted to submit to the culture of impunity that comes hand in hand with the fast evolving authoritarian rule of this administration.
What are the contours of this new human rights belief based on presidential pronouncements and actual actions of state security forces? In his first State of the Nation Address, Duterte declared that “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country.” Culling from this statement and its real-life consequence more than a year into its administration, one of the key human rights pillars of the Duterte regime seems to be this: the right of the State to keep itself in power supercedes all other rights even the human rights of individuals.
The policy statement implicitly creates a wedge between the good and benign citizens of the Duterte nation under the care of the paternal power of the State versus the implied troublemakers who are "out to destroy the country." The former is upon whose behest the rights of the latter are suspended. Simply put, in order protect the rights of law-abiding citizens of the nation against harm, the rights of identified enemies of the state can go to the gutter, as far Duterte and his security forces are concerned – a self-serving interpretation of human rights one must say.
The approach, however, discards the liberal principle of "universality," a progressive element in the UDHR that makes it a modern discourse. By privileging the rights of one type of citizen over another, the Duterte administration wants to bring back the advances of human rights discourse to the pre-modern era where an anointed class enjoys such privileges at the expense of an excluded sector.
Drafted at a time when the threat of states to harm not just other states but also their own citizens was real, the 1948 UDHR is also primarily keen on protecting the rights of citizens against abusive states, a condition that fits the present human rights situation in the country to a T. In fact, for its limitations, the 1948 rights declaration in its preamble also recognizes the right of citizens to rebel against tyranny and oppression, if the conduct of their government compels them to do so.
The drug war and the macabre body count that trailed its wake already showed us the consequences of this dangerous human rights policy framework. The attack of the Duterte administration against open grassroots organizations involved in human rights advocacy and multilateral organizations helping them should be seen in this frame.
Last October 27, Julito Otacan, a human rights worker under an EU-funded project implemented by the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Subregion (RMP-NMR) was rounded up, together with five fellow Banwaons, in Balit, San Luis, Agusan del Sur by state security forces and subsequently accused of being rebels. Another community leader in Bagocboc, Opol, Misamis Oriental, Joseph Paborada was also harassed by the military and is being forced to surrender as a rebel. Paborada also works with RMP-NMR in their struggle in resisting oil palm encroachment into their Higaonon ancestral domain.
These incidents confirm the official human rights policy framework of this government and how these are implemented on the ground. Those who are perceived enemies of the state are considered less than human and arbitrarily stripped off their enshrined rights as human beings because the Duterte regime’s practice of state power should go unhampered.
The Duterte administration is apparently hell-bent on yanking out the Philippines from the table of civilized nations and is keen on patterning its own human rights practice taken straight out of a tyrant’s guidebook that wreaked havoc on this nation decades ago. Troubling times we are in again indeed.