International Trade

The Power of the Purse: President Rodrigo Duterte Effectively Defunded the Philippine Commission on Human Rights

Filipinos often refer to them by their acronym – EJKs – extrajudicial killings, and they are taking place with alarming frequency in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte, in a quest to rid the archipelago nation of its illicit drug trade cheers on police and citizen vigilantes who gun down and otherwise dispatch of suspected, small-time dealers and users. EJKs take place absent of trials and due process. Most of those killed are petty criminals, users and sometimes completely innocent of any crime – not the kingpins who direct and profit handsomely from the drug trade.

The EJK count hovers at around 8,000 and continues to rise. Many Filipinos applaud the killings and are thrilled to have a president who is taking robust action against criminals, however, others are concerned about the steady erosion of rule of law in their country. Democracy in the Philippines suffered another blow when Duterte reduced the annual budget of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights to just $20 USD. The president used the power of the purse to silence one of the few voices speaking out against the extrajudicial killings.

Democracy has been in retreat in the Philippines since Duterte’s presidency began in June 2016. While Duterte was mayor of the Mindanao city of Davao, 1,000 of Davao’s residents were executed without due process. Although President Duterte insists that his adherence to rule of law and due process are “uncompromising,” the facts on the ground tell a different story, and his presidential record appears to be a continuation of his mayoral one.

According to Freedom House, the Philippines is “one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism” in large part because of his hostile rhetoric against the media, and the President has imposed martial law in Mindanao. There are fears that he will ultimately impose it throughout the nation.

Although democracy’s fall in the Philippines has accelerated under Duterte, political dysfunction is built into the system. Duterte has just managed to capitalize on it. The government and industry are largely controlled by families – dynasties – leaving the bulk of the population in poverty. Forty families control roughly 75 percent of the wealth, and Duterte has installed family members into political positions in Davao to ensure that they benefit.

To complicate things further, President Duterte campaigned on a promise to incorporate federalism into the current, multi-layered governmental system. He believes that federalism will bring peace to Mindanao, although there is little evidence that placing an additional layer of government over an already intricate system of municipal, local and provincial governments will invite anything but more corruption. True to form, Duterte is having the plans for federalism drafted in secret to be revealed when they are complete.

Many Filipinos recognize the threat that the current regime poses to their democracy and are fighting back. The Liberal Party released a statement reminiscent of America’s Founding Fathers, “Throughout the world, adherence to the rule of law is central to the promise of a safe, free, and just society. Unfortunately, it is never handed on a silver platter.” The Philippine patriots speaking out against their nation’s democratic retreat should be applauded.

The Philippines’ geographical location on the South China Sea and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between our two nations speak to the Philippines’ strategic importance to the United States. The two countries share history – the Philippines was once a U.S. colony and was a close American ally during World War II. Manila suffered more destruction than any city during the war except for Warsaw, and while the United States exhibited one of its finest moments in rebuilding World War II enemies – Germany and Japan – during the post-World War II period, we largely ignored the Philippines. It is time to start paying attention and to start shining a spotlight on democracy’s retreat there.


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