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Stopping the Slide : Democracy and Human Rights Decline under Duterte

From his pulpit at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Congress, Duterte once again rebuked human rights activists and their criticism against his violent war on drugs, by saying “your concern is human rights, mine is human lives.” As discussed in the Focus statement on Duterte’s 3rd SONA, his intention was to continue the false narrative that he has articulated before : that human rights defenders are only concerned with the rights of drug addicts and criminals, and not the rights of the victims of violent crimes. Demonization of human rights and human rights defenders has become the hallmark of this administration.” [1]

Ahead of critical midterm polls, Focus spoke with Rose Trajano, of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and the broader In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity movement (iDEFEND), Josua Mata of the progressive labor center SENTRO, and Manjette Lopez of SANLAKAS and Laban ng Masa to get their assessments of the impact of Duterte on democracy and human rights. [2]

There was unanimity from all three that there has been a considerable push back on human rights under Duterte. “All of the achievements and accomplishments of years of human rights struggle after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship have been erased,” lamented Trajano. While fully aware of the failure of past administrations post EDSA, Trajano nevertheless highlights the signing of all major international human rights treaties as a key accomplishment that has hitherto defined the Philippines’ standing with respect to the recognition by States of their human rights obligations under international law. Mata qualified, however, that with the exception of the withdrawal from the Rome Statute (and the International Criminal Court), there has not been a turning back on these international obligations, but rather a lack of interest and energy to implement these obligations.

One cannot discuss the human rights situation without considering the rising casualties from the violent war on drugs. On this point, Lopez drew comparisons between the regimes of Duterte and Marcos. “Not just in terms of the body count but on the question of impunity as well, Duterte may surpass the Marcos record on human rights,” according to Lopez. She expounded that under Marcos there was some façade of due process, and some semblance of rule of law with the issuance of presidential decrees. Furthermore, there is a sense expressed by Mata of the deeper implications of what Duterte has done on human rights that “will remain long after he’s gone.”

According to Mata, Duterte’s position against human rights has deep implications on the relationship of the people with government. “Duterte was able to convince huge sections of the government, as well his loyal support base, that human rights are not as important as they should be,” asserted Mata. “We see this in the practices of government when it tries to stifle dissent, where there seems to be no compunction in violating the law,” he further asserted.

Unfortunately, this demonization of human rights seems to resonate well with the public, not least with Duterte’s support base. Lopez surmised that what Duterte did was to offer the electorate a choice—a local strongman, ready and willing to trample upon basic rights but with the political will to deliver the social and economic goods—or much of the same, tired, business-as-usual trapo (traditional) politics which he successfully branded as the yellow politics of his predecessor Benigno Aquino III and the Liberal Party.

This false narrative of bread versus freedom perpetuated by Duterte is a cause for reflection among the progressive forces. “We need to wake up to the reality that despite our efforts for many years to increase peoples awareness on human rights there is clearly no deep appreciation among the broad public of human rights,” stressed Mata. Trajano conceded a disconnect between the work on human rights education, which focused more on basic appreciation of human rights, particularly civil and political rights, rather than economic, social and cultural rights, the fulfillment of which is the foundation of a life of dignity. “We realize that we have not been fully successful in our human rights education work, to make people understand that human rights are in essence about ensuring that all peoples enjoy a life of dignity, and that it is the obligation of States to fulfill these rights,” expressed Trajano.

Lopez, however, made an important point that in many respects, even on the promise to put in place pro-poor policies, Duterte has not really delivered. According to Lopez, “while the Philippine Development Plan (2017-2020) included significant sectoral and issue-based demands raised by civil society organizations during a series of summits, more than three years into his term Duterte has not delivered on any of these.”

“Whether his campaign promise to end contractualization, or the free distribution of land to farmers and poverty reduction, not just the progressives and left, but the masses have taken note of this failure to deliver,” stressed Lopez. She adds, “people are expressing their discontent over high prices, the water crisis, inefficiencies in the Metro Rail Transit (MRT), among others.” Lopez notes the increased number of notices of and actual strikes among workers as a significant indicator as well.

Erosion of democratic institutions

Further on this aspect of peoples’ engagement with government that Mata touched upon, Trajano raised the concern about the attacks against institutions and the implications on democracy. “Again we are not saying these institutions are perfect, and criticisms have been raised on how some of these institutions have functioned or failed to function in the past. But at least there was an openness to engage (with civil society),” asserted Trajano.

Mata sees this attack on institutions as part of a larger agenda to “align all the elements of the state towards an authoritarian regime.” He says, “There seems to be a concerted effort—with what is happening in both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the security sector, media, and social movements—to limit the space especially for individuals and groups with dissenting views.” He added that the push for charter change is part of a broader agenda intended to “usher in an authoritarian regime in a modern sense.”

Significance of the 2019 mid-term elections

Given this context, the groups that we talked to are looking at the upcoming national and local elections as an opportunity to advance the human rights and democracy agenda. PAHRA recently launched a campaign called Karapat Dapat : Karapatan Dapat, a ten-point human rights electoral agenda. PAHRA sees the 2019 elections as a “defining moment for the aggrieved Filipino masses, whether we move forward as a nation hoping for better lives, or as doomed souls,” introducing their agenda called #Sampusigurado (Sure Ten) [3]which means that implementing the agenda will certainly lead to real change and a strong democracy. PAHRA is not supporting a particular slate or certain candidates but rather the “slate is carried by the campaign which appeals for a recognition of doing what is right and just.” [4]

PAHRA is calling on “national and local candidates to support the #Sampusigurado by incorporating the ten-point agenda in their platforms. And in the same vein, calling on the public to demand that candidates adopt this human rights agenda, and to vote for those who do, in order to prevent further erosion of our democratic traditions and processes, and build the future with decent, competent leaders with effective programs.” [5]

In this regard, Trajano, Mata, and Lopez all identified charter change and the 2019 Senate race as crucial issues. Both SENTRO, as part of the broader network of social movements called KALIPUNAN, and SANLAKAS of Laban ng Masa have defined their engagements in the electoral campaign either by fully endorsing certain candidates, or fielding their own candidates either at the Senate race or the party-list elections.

Laban ng Masa has fully endorsed the candidacy for the Senate of labor leader Leody de Guzman of Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) and the partylist Partido ng Lakas Masa.

SENTRO has endorsed opposition candidates Bam Aquino, Chel Diokno, Samira Gutoc, Florin Hilbay, and Erin Tanada, whom they feel can effectively halt the charter change agenda in the Senate. Mata elaborates that SENTRO is pushing the labor vote campaign up to the local level, which is oriented towards building the opposition—not just for the Senate race in 2019—but looking ahead to the 2022 national and local elections as well.

For its part, Laban ng Masa sees the elections as a “tactical period to push for peoples issues and advance struggles around these issues.” This, according to Lopez, is the reason why De Guzman is running. They of course are hoping for a win for De Guzman, but a bigger objective for them is to push the mass struggles and harness the growing political awareness on key national and local issues emanating from these struggles. Laban ng Masa is therefore advancing a progressive agenda anchored on supporting peoples’ resistance to forces that undermine their rights, and harnessing mass struggles to engage not just for organizing but to advance concrete solutions. Among the issues identified by Laban ng Masa are climate change impacts ; supporting the struggle of communities opposing coal fired power plants ; the opposition of farmers to the liberalization of the rice sector ; contractualization ; and supporting various local workers strikes and actions.

Stopping the Slide

There is no denying that Duterte has been not just a disruptive but also a divisive force on human rights and democracy. Progressive groups are well aware, however, that the rise of Duterte is a reflection of the fragile democracy that we still have, and partly a result of the failure of past governments to guarantee all human rights for all Filipinos. Nevertheless, there is a sense—and without prejudice to the continuing efforts to deepen democracy in the Philippines—that the rising casualty toll from the war on drugs, the orchestrated clampdown on dissent, the erosion of checks and balances in government, the attacks against the media, and the withdrawal from international human rights obligations are clear signs of a decline in Philippine democracy and human rights.

A new indications and warning system designed to monitor the risk of authoritarianism in the United States called Stop the Slide [6] identified seven important categories of rights and freedoms that safeguard American democracy against encroachment by authoritarianism :

Freedom of the Press and Transparency ; Freedom of Speech and Assembly ; Free and Fair Elections ; Freedom of Religion and Worship ; the Criminal Justice System ; Security Services ;

and Government Checks and Balances. While there are apparent similarities between the situation in the Philippines and the United States with respect to moves towards authoritarianism, there are also very distinct differences, particularly with regard to the contrasting strengths and weaknesses of public institutions between these two nations.

Nevertheless, it is important to examine these indicators and constantly assess and monitor changes, with the end view of stopping the deterioration of human rights situation and the decline of democracy. As articulated by the proponents of the Stop the Slide system, “the first step to safeguarding our rights and freedoms against authoritarian encroachment is a well-informed and alert citizenry who knows what signals to look for amongst the noise.” [7] And here we find congruence with the efforts outlined by progressives in the Philippines.

To summarize, progressive groups are pursuing efforts to continue the all-important aspect of grassroots human rights education and advocacy towards a human rights based approach to governance. Supporting and standing in solidarity with peoples and communities struggling for recognition, protection, and fulfillment of rights towards a life of dignity is another important aspect of the work that is being done, as is finally building a strong and broad peoples movement ready and able to challenge the agenda of authoritarianism in the coming elections and beyond.#


[1Focus on the Global South Statement. Duterte 2 Years on : Destructive, Divisive, and Despotic. 1 August 2018. Accessed online at https://focusweb.org/duterte-2-years-on-destructive-divisive-and-despotic/

[2Interviews were conducted by the author on 21 March 2019 for Rose Trajano, and 28 March 2019 for Josua Mata and Manjette Lopez in Quezon City.

[3Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).The ten-point agenda are : Human rights-based governance, compliance with international human rights treaties and instruments, Access to justice, accountability and ending impunity ; Protection for vulnerable sectors ; Protection for human rights defenders ; Attainment of sustainable and inclusive peace and security ; Enforcement of food sovereignty, decent livelihood and sustainable housing ; Enforcement of laws towards a healthy and safe environment, Enforcement of a people-centered development program ; and Protection against foreign aggression and exploitation. Available online at https://philippinehumanrights.org/

[4Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).Human rights electoral agenda is the people’s agenda. 7 March 2019. Accessed online at https://philippinehumanrights.org/news/11-statements/37-human-rights-electoral-agenda-is-the-people-s-agenda


[6Stopping the Democratic Decline in America. Accessed online at https://www.stoptheslide.org/


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.