From the Philippines’ Marcos, Lassitude in Human Rights
Three months in, a passive president
From a human rights standpoint, the 106-day-old administration of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. seems to be on cruise control, coasting into the future pretty much on the policies put in place by Bongbong’s rough-hewn predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. To those watching carefully for warnings of bloodthirstiness inherited from Marcos’s father, one of the most spectacularly corrupt Asian despots of the last century, so far there is no sign. But there is also no sign that he intends break spectacularly into a reformer’s mold either.
There are plenty of wrongs to right from the six years of Duterte’s reign, not least the tens of thousands of people who died without trial in extrajudicial killings by police and death squads with, according to official figures, remarkably little effect on the Philippines’ drug problem or crime. Human rights organizations recorded 61 lawyers killed during his administration, most of them defense lawyers for leftists or other civil rights issues.
Marcos does appear to have made an early break with Duterte as far as the drug war is concerned, according to an analysis by Rappler’s Glenda Gloria, who quoted him telling the Associated Press: “His people went too far sometimes,” on the sidelines of his visit to the United Nations. “While this might be regarded as mere posturing before an American audience, one indication that it’s beyond propaganda is his choice of the Philippine National Police chief, Rodolfo Azurin Jr., who’s not tied to the drug killings,” Gloria wrote.
But while he may require the police to pull back from the Duterte policy, it’s taking some time. Five “suspected drug personalities” were reported killed on October 12 in southwestern Mindanao, police said.
During Duterte’s administration, hundreds of people were “red-tagged” as subversives and arrested, many of them activists, journalists, politicians, environmentalists and others and their organizations were accused of being directly in supporting the communist insurgency, exposing them to arrest, kidnapping or death. The country’s rambunctious press has been mostly cowed except for organizations like Rappler, the courageous website whose leader, Maria, has been repeatedly arrested or sued on various pretexts.
In Marcos’s 7,950-word state-of-the nation address delivered in Manila on July 25, he never mentioned redressing the human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings or attacks on the press committed by his predecessor. Bongbong appears likely to continue the record he forged as governor of Ilocos Norte province and as a Philippine lawmaker, leaving as few ripples in the water as possible. On human rights issues as well as his style of governing, as Manuel L. Quezon III illustrated in Asia Sentinel on October 8, he mixes a markedly passive style of governance with a predilection for making flowery speeches, a predilection he shared with his late father.
The president’s justice minister Crispin Remulla, on October 6 told the UN Human Rights Commission that the Marcos administration, is “pursuing a transformational reform on its justice and law enforcement sectors, that reforms are being pursued to "ensure the rule of law and the promotion and protection of the human rights of all its citizens" and that the government would emphasize rehabilitation, prevention, education and assistance to victims and their families.
Despite Marcos’s September 21 2,390 word speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, in which he pledged “to uphold the ideals that led to the establishment of this parliament of nations, and to reject any attempt to deny or redefine our common understanding of these principles,” he is not going to turn Duterte over to the UN‘s International Criminal Court to resume an investigation into the former president’s war on drugs, which has left thousands of mostly poor drug users and dealers dead. His solicitor general, the Philippines’ chief legal officer – and Duterte’s former justice minister – argued that the international court “has no jurisdiction” over the Philippines.
Philippine Senator Leila de Lima, the former head of the Human Rights Commission and a Duterte critic, has spent the better part of the past six years in “preventive detention” after being jailed on what were clearly trumped-up charges engineered by Duterte to stop criticism of his decision to turn the police loose for indiscriminate murder. She suddenly came into notice on October 2 when she was attacked by an Islamic radical trying to break his way out of what is thought to be the country’s most secure prison, Camp Crame. Two witnesses have recanted their testimony against her. Bongbong’s sister Imee said after de Lima had been freed from the now-dead Abu Sayyaf escapee that she thought talks had been on to free the highly-respected senator. But apparently nobody in the administration thought to tell her lawyers.
Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, has called Marcos’s first 100 days "’old wine in a new bottle"’ since he has not appreciably moved away from the problematic, rights abusing practices of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. “All we're really seen so far is better packaging of Marcos as a somehow kinder, gentler leader who doesn't speak coarsely or issue threats at late night press conferences,” he said. “The parade of foreign diplomats and UN officials to Marcos' door shows the international community's willful self-deception, anchored in a triumph of hope over practical evidence that very little has changed on the ground.”
As Robertson says, the reality is the 'drug war' continues, with daily extrajudicial killings happening and no improvement in accountability. The security forces' use of so-called 'red-tagging' to smear political opponents as being part of the CPP-NPA also continues unabated, effectively putting bullseyes on the back of community activists, lawyers, local media, and anyone else who angers the military or police.
The administration shows no signs of letting up on Rappler, the popular independent news website run by Nobel Prize winner Maria Ressa, despite the prestige the publication has accrued internationally. On October 11, the Philippine Court of Appeals refused to reconsider an appeal by Ressa and Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. over a case that is doubtful at best and specious at worst. These are courts that historically have paid close attention to the wishes of the executive branch – as they certainly did under Duterte.
In Rappler’s case, there was plenty of cause for a reversal. The case was filed years after the article appeared and months before the Philippine Legislature enacted a law establishing cyber libel as a punishable offense. The National Bureau of Investigation first dismissed the complaint for “lack of basis” and said that the country’s one-year limit on filing libel charges had expired, then reversed itself in a move that had Duterte’s fingerprints all over it.
Marcos said in September that he has “no problem” in returning the broadcasting franchise to the ABS-CBN network owned by the Lopez family “as long as it can resolve the issues hurled against it.” But he denied that the “issues” had anything to do with Duterte’s campaign against the broadcasting giant for its opposition to the violence and extrajudicial killings in the drug war.
“I have not changed my position ever,” he said. “The question about the ABS-CBN franchise is really about some of the violations, and some of the problems that they have encountered during the hearings and in the investigation in the House of Representatives,” he told local media. “And so long as those are attended to, and those are resolved, then there’s no reason actually for the Committee on Franchises in the House to deny them a franchise.” In 2020, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, ABS-CBN was forced to shut down its free TV operations after the House of Representatives rejected its application to renew its 25-year franchise, almost certainly on Duterte’s orders.
“In the latest news,” HRW’s Robertson told Asia Sentinel, “Marcos is going one step further than [Duterte] by appointing unqualified loyalists to the Commission on Human Rights, evidently trying to neuter that independent monitor from looking too closely at what his government is failing to do to address human rights.”
The argument goes that Duterte was so bad that anything else must be an improvement, Robertson said, “conveniently ignoring that Sara Duterte sits at Marcos' elbow as Vice-President. No one should forget the debt that Marcos owes to the Duterte clan for delivering votes to his ticket from across the southern reaches of the Philippines.”
The UN Human Rights Council's recent abandonment of a vigorous international human rights monitoring and reporting mandate for the Philippines shows sadly that Marcos' ruse is working, Robertson said. “It's either that or the international community is too tired or too cynical to care about the continued bloodletting in the Philippines as long as the carnage doesn't reach the pages of their newspapers or their nightly news broadcasts.
There is plenty of evidence of what Robertson calls ‘continued bloodletting.” On October 3, a popular radio journalist named Percil Mabasa, who broadcast as Percy Lapid, was ambushed and killed by two gunmen as he drove home into his gated community in Manila. According to Reporters Without Borders, “Mabasa was well known to listeners in the Manila area for analyzing and denouncing cases of corruption and abuse of public property. He recently exposed irregularities in the importation of sugar by an agency directly connected with the administration led by Marcos Jr, who was elected president last May. The president’s executive secretary, Vic Rodriguez, resigned as a result of this scandal last month.”
Mabasa was the second journalist killed since Marcos took office. Another radio broadcaster, Rey Blanco, was stabbed dead in Mabinay, Negros Oriental, on September 18. He is also the 197th journalist killed in the country since 1986, or the restoration of democracy. So far, Marcos has not denounced either killing although his press secretary said he “expressed concern’ about Mabasa’s killing. The Philippines is ranked 147th of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index.