President Rodrigo Duterte’s iron fist won’t make Filipinos safer

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by Hans Dembowski

State of lawlessness in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a state of lawlessness in the Philippines after a bomb blew up and killed 14 people in the city of Davao on Saturday. He is trying to reassure his people by acting tough, suggesting that military force is what it takes to fight terrorism and crime. Most likely, however, his hard-line stance will not make Filipinos safer, but contribute to an escalation of violence.

The bloody attack on Davao is said to have been perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf, a bizarre Islamist outfit with a long history of violence and crime. Duterte’s declaration means that he can now make full use of the military. Experts point out that he is not violating the constitution and has not imposed military rule, but is making use of valid legal provisions to stem lawlessness.

This reasoning is certainly legally accurate. At the same time, it has very problematic political connotations because it implies that the rules that normally bind the action of the security forces need to be relaxed to fight lawlessness. Relaxing laws to enforce laws, however, is a recipe for disaster.  

Criminal violence is lawless by definition. In contrast, the action of government agencies, which obviously must fight crime, always has to be lawful. Thinking in degrees of lawfulness leads to dangerous ambiguity. The less regular security forces are bound by the law when violence escalates, the harder they are  to distinguish from illegal perpetrators of violence.  Soon some people will feel that gangs or militias offer protection against the military, and the more such perceptions take root, the more common violence becomes. In the end, the rule of law seems a utopian dream.

The sad truth is that the Philippines has a long history of insurgencies by various Muslim groups, and the distinction between criminals and insurgents has long been blurry. Duterte’s response to the attack on Davao may thus undermine a fragile peace process. The good news is that Abu Sayyaf is one of the most isolated armed organisations, so full-blown civil war is unlikely.

It adds to the worries, however, that Duterte has shown little concern for the rule of law in another context. According to human-rights groups, some 2000 drug traffickers and drug users have been killed since Duterte took office at the end of June. Some died at the hands of police officers, others fell victim to vigilants. Duterte does not mind. As my colleague Alan Robles wrote on our website, he had pledged to clamp down on crime, saying he was eager to have people killed.

This strong-man rhetoric apparently pleased many voters. Duterte won the election after all. It is safe to predict, however, that the security forces will not win the war on drugs for him. If an iron fist approach was what it took to solve the problems, Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries would be drug free today. They are not. Nor has NATO, the world’s strongest military alliance, managed to eradicate opium cultivation from Afghanistan.

Poverty, marginalisation and hopelessness are important dimensions of the drugs economy. Some desperate people use drugs and become addicted. Other desperate people see the drugs trade as the only career opportunity they have. A lot of money is involved, and even sophisticated weapons become affordable to the gangs. Gangs tend to fight one another, but they also form alliances  – for instance with radical political groups or corrupt members of the security forces, who are often haunted by a deep sense of hopelessness themselves. The term “war on drugs” distracts from the underlying social problems that deserve attention. This is not a war that can be won by military means. The same is true of insurgencies.

The Philippines has a long history of lawlessness and impunity, and the state agencies’ reputation is less than clean. Things have improved since the military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was toppled by a popular uprising in 1986. Nonetheless, many Filipinos still do not trust the security forces. Duterte’s promise is that the good guys will beat the bad guys, regardless of the means. His approach is dangerous. What is country really needs is trustworthy institutions. He should be building them.  

 P.S.: Abu Sayyaf allegedly has links to ISIS, the terror militia, but I’ve decided not to emphasise that aspect. Taking vague information of this kind too seriously means to fan the flames of ISIS propaganda. Abu Sayyaf has been around for a long time, and its fighters have killed long before ISIS emerged on the international scene. Attributing every incident of fundamentalist violence anywhere in the world to ISIS makes ISIS look stronger and more dangerous than it is. Moreover, it does not help to fight groups like Abu Sayyaf. In the case of the Philippines, worrying about far-away ISIS means to become distracted from the country’s serious own problems.    

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