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[OPINION] Duterte is making a big mistake

Political persecution and killings of activists and human rights defenders have been consistently at the top of the government's agenda since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016. To date, more than 2,000 human rights defenders have already been attacked through various forms including threat, intimidation, harassment, trumped-up charges, and extrajudicial killing. The massive crackdown against activists has transformed the Philippines into one of the most notorious countries for civil society.

War against dissent

The administration has been successful in orchestrating a systematic and organized campaign against dissenters and members of the opposition. The purest form of the strategy, which populists like Duterte use to stifle dissent, is the process that we call "othering" – a process of social exclusion, separating the "us" from "them." To put it simply, the government made it a norm to exclude individuals or groups who are against the state's policies and direction as "enemies" of change, and as a response, the government must get rid of them.

Drug dependents who have fallen prey to the war on drugs are victims of the process. The public has been conditioned to believe that those who are engaged in drug activities, especially those who engage in small-scale drug transactions, are irreformable. Any attempt to rehabilitate them would mean wasted state resources.

The same process is being used against dissenters and activists through red-tagging or branding them as communists. Only recently, offices of national democratic organizations were raided and their members were arrested.

Activism is a right

The right to association and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights. The mere exercise of these rights is essential in a democracy where varying opinions and political inclinations must exist. The substantial and relevant participation of civil society actors are encouraged in many successful democracies, and ultimately, a flourishing democracy is necessary for a country's development.

It is the duty of the state to protect the civic space where people can just go and express their support or contrary opinion on issues that affect them. If the citizens see the mass transport crisis as an issue, let them speak out. If the nurses feel that they are underpaid, let them speak out. If innocent lives are being threatened, let the activists speak out.

Role of judiciary in a democracy

In the midst of this erosion of basic liberties and attack on human rights, we expect that the last bastion of democracy – the courts – could step in and shield our most cherished rights and check the excesses of power. Sadly, they were not spared from the impunity brought by this war. At least 43 judges, lawyers, and prosecutors have been killed under Duterte's regime. Many point that the motivation behind their killing is related to the exercise of their duty. These grim murders are not just attacks on individuals; they are a direct attack on the very system of justice in the country itself.

Courts and their workers comprise the third branch of government. Said to be the weakest of the 3 branches, the judiciary's main source of legitimacy is found not in elections, but in the fairness and reasonableness of its written decisions. Courts do not have an army or police force, but they can strike down a law. This ability to function as an independent judiciary, however, is now being undermined relentlessly. Attacks on judges and lawyers send a chilling effect throughout the judiciary that masked men can take the law into their own hands and escape with brazen impunity.

With this dangerous situation, judges could not be expected to write their decisions free from fear and intimidation and lawyers have to turn away the poor whose cases threaten the privileged position of the powerful. This further feeds the marginalization of the many who need the law, but at the same time, strengthen the privilege of the few who could not be touched by the law. 

The rule of law crumbles under the weight of this imbalance. With an intimidated court, our nation's arbiter retreats. And with it comes the creeping distrust from the people who need the law. This distrust is dangerous as it diminishes the people's options for peaceful resolution of conflict. Vigilantism breeds in a sea of distrust and dysfunction of a legal system. And like a vicious cycle, it feeds more violence and more distrust and ultimately eats our democracy from within.

By going after the human rights defenders who are working directly with the masses and judges who are upholding the rule of law, Duterte is committing one big mistake. If he thinks that activists will be silenced, he is wrong. If he thinks that killing activists will paralyze the movement, he is wrong. The human rights community exists for a reason and it will not cease to exist – even if tyrants like him become powerless. – Rappler.com

Christian Gultia is a student of MA Philippine Studies at the University of the Philippines Asian Center. He is the chairperson of Youth for Human Rights and Democracy-Philippines.

Ernesto Neri is a human rights lawyer and educator. He handles pro bono cases for laborers, children, and victims of the drug war.