Official Vigilantism in the Philippines

The classic Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles was on television the other night. Toward the end of the film, the villain Hedley Lamarr rounds up every criminal in the West to overrun the town of Rock Ridge and make way for his railway:

“I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.”

To make his criminal posse official, he offers them badges, to which they reply: “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” It seems that, for some, official sanction for crime isn’t necessary.

Today, enter President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Elected on a tough-on-crime platform, Duterte is known for his extreme rhetoric, particularly about drug-related offences. In one memorable speech, Duterte compared himself to Adolph Hitler: “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

But it is not just his rhetoric that is terrifying. Since his election in June, over 1,800 people have been killed by the police in the Philippines. These people were all suspected of relations to the drug trade, either as traffickers or users, but none of them were given any due process, much less a trial. But worse, almost twice as many people were killed over the same five-month period by vigilantes, emboldened by Duterte’s rhetoric and protected by an unofficial sanction: while the government does not officially endorse these killings, they aren’t actively investigating them either. This replicates his strategy from when he was mayor of the city of Davao, where he armed civilian militias who functioned as roving death squads – something he promised to do at his final campaign rally:

“Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you….I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”

This week on CBC’s The Current, Anna-Maria Tremonti spoke with a representative of the Duterte government who dismissed Duterte’s claim that “I’d be happy to slaughter them” as merely expressive language and posturing. He also explained that the Philippines does have the rule of law and a court system, but the courts cannot be adequately trusted to convict criminals because they are overly influenced by the drug cartels – which is to say, the government claims that they have due process, while at the same time allowing extra-judicial killings (officially and unofficially) because the courts cannot be trusted. The interview was painful, but not nearly as painful as the trauma people there face when their loved ones are gunned down by police or masked gunmen because their name appeared on a government-issued list of people suspected of being drug addicts or traffickers.

There is a reason that democracy is founded on the rule of law. In a medieval monarchy, royalty were above the law: the king could decide when and where the law applied, and exempt himself or the people of his choosing. If a government can decide to work around the law, a major aspect of the fabric of society is torn. Mutual accountability to the law is one of the things that holds us together, and without it we are less able to live together in peace. Once some laws are ineffective or unenforced, other laws become weaker too.

Which is why Duterte’s plan to stop criminals (drug cartels) by empowering other people to commit crimes (murder) without due process or accountability is backwards and self-defeating. Without the law as its own universal force, social stability becomes a matter of those with power using force to control people. Duterte has set himself up as a dictator whether he intended to or not, and will depend on increasing violence to control the downward spiral he has started.

He’s very popular though. There seems to be an appeal to people who work outside the law to get things done. Just as Donald Trump nonsensically claims that he’s the only one who can govern because he’s the only candidate with absolutely no experience governing, Duterte claims that he can stop all crime by filling the bay with bodies. There is such a deep-seated mistrust of the establishment that the institutions that were built over the last few hundred years are now seen by many as hindrances to justice and good governance rather than their very structures. People seem to be longing for the Wild West, as though gunfights at high noon and saloon brawls offered any real justice.

Blazing Saddles would never be made today – it is far too politically incorrect. But before the Trumpists jump in with the usual refrain about how political correctness is what’s wrong with the world today, we need to remember that the racist, sexist, and homophobic humour was (mostly) satire designed to make us laugh at how awful the Wild West really was. Where Black people were slaves who could be strung up (i.e., murdered) for no reason, and nobody would trust a Black sheriff; where women were either grannies in bonnets with rolling pins, or prostitutes; where disputes were solved with duels, intimidation, and beatings; and where drunken violence was so commonplace it was beneath notice. The thread running through all of the violence and injustice of Blazing Saddles is that Rock Ridge didn’t have a sheriff (and nobody trusted the new sheriff because he was Black). In the absence of the rule of law, there is chaos and anarchy. Duterte and Trump both claim to be able to control it, but nobody can forever (if at all).

So how should Canada relate to nations like the Philippines? Barack Obama called Duterte on the extrajudicial killings, which prompted Duterte to rant against America, call Obama a “son of a whore,” and claim alliances with China and Russia – not an outcome we’d actually like to see. When an expert from the UN noted that the extrajudicial killings are against international law, Duterte threatened to pull out of the UN – also not a good outcome. It seems that everyone outside the Philippines who comments on this injustice risks losing any connection (and therefore any leverage) they have with the Duterte government. A government that is willing to cut ties with the outside world in order to avoid their influence is a potential rogue state in the making.

What Canada can do is lead by example, joining the ranks of the European nations that have decriminalized drug use – a strategy that has been very successful in reducing the number of drug addicts on the streets and in prisons, and increasing the accessibility and use of drug treatment programs. Treating drug use as a health problem rather than a crime is better for everyone involved, reducing stigma on users and helping them to get treatment while reducing tensions with police – effectively the exact opposite approach of the Duterte government.

Once we have improved our own approach to drug use, we can offer aid to the Philippines in the form of expertise and funding for drug treatment programs. Given the approach Duterte has taken, I’m not sure they would accept it, but it’s certainly better than getting into a war of words with the would-be dictator by offering international criticism.

What Duterte is doing is wrong. Full stop. And it is the duty of all moral beings to address injustice when we see it. But words are rarely enough, and can sometimes get in the way. Actions speak louder than words, and our actions must be consistent with our values, even if we are not speaking those values aloud – which means that our approach to a state like the Philippines must be peaceful and aimed at achieving real results for the vulnerable people there, more than being seen internationally to be saying the right things regardless of the outcomes.


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