• Anna Szekeres

In Discussion with Carlos Conde of the Human Rights Watch

Carlos Conde is a researcher for the Human Rights Watch in Manila. As both a Philippine citizen and former journalist with over 20 years of experience, he has seen first-hand the effects of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. With the passage of the new Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020 and recent considerations for reinstating the death penalty, Conde has put forth much literature concerning the Human Rights Watch’s position on the Philippines’ abandonment of its human rights obligations.

As a human rights expert, how would describe the human rights implications of the Anti-Terrorism Act?

We think the anti-terrorism law is vague and over-broad. It is very open for misuse and is susceptible to exploitation by government agents who seek to crackdown on dissent. It presents a real problem in terms of security and safety for those who are going to be designated as terrorists. Specifically, for instance, we are very concerned that the anti-terror law has designated the Anti-Terrorism Council as the secretariat to determine or to designate whoever they think is a terrorist.

Courts used to be able to do that but they have now been confined to the issue of conscription, not designation, which are two different things. Only a court can, for instance, conscript a group like the New People's Army or Abu Sayyaf and has to go through a process to do so. However, under this anti-terrorism law, it says there that the anti-terrorism council can designate anybody a terrorist and, once this designation is made, the government or the state can, in fact, arrest someone without a warrant. Anybody they designate can be held in detention for a maximum of 24 days without charges. These are really worrying provisions of the anti-terrorism council.

What is more concerning for us is that this anti-terrorism law, compared to its predecessor, the Homeland Security Act, is not just directed against, for instance, Islamic terrorists, Islamic extremism, Abu Sayyaf, or ISIS. What we are looking at right now is the use of this law for counter-insurgency purposes targeting the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front. We believe that more than any of the former groups, the latter will be the target of this anti-terror law.

Now you have to keep in mind that the Philippines has had more than half a century of a national liberation movement led by the Communist Party of the Philippines. It is not as if they are extremist in the strictest sense that we know extremist to be; they are a liberation movement. They are a political movement, but also, they have an armed wing which makes them illegal. The New People’s Army has in fact been conscripted as a terrorist group.

However, using all sorts of justification, the government has been accusing a lot of individuals and groups, who are not necessarily members of the New People's Army, as Communists and are therefore trying them as terrorists. As you know, in the Philippines once you are tagged as a Communist, ergo terrorist, it can be quite fatal; several activists who were tagged as Communists have ended up dead, having been assassinated by the state and unidentified assailants. So really, it is a very worrisome law in that regard.

Now you have the Chief of Staff of the Philippines military saying that the law should be used to regulate social media. They are now not just targeting activists from the left but also, more broadly, social media users. This is quite important because social media use in the Philippines is very active. We are probably at the top in the world in terms of social media engagements and a lot of Filipinos who are not necessarily political have been using social media, either Facebook or Twitter, as a form of dissent to criticise the government.

Social media users are not just contending with the so-called cybercrime or cyber-libel laws in the Philippines when they post something on media which has been misused by the government and their supporters. Now they have to contend with anti-terror laws as well. So really the space for democracy and freedom of expression is shrinking in the Philippines.

I think that that is a growing concern across the world with this response to social media and its use for dissent. We see this in the United States right now with TikTok, one of our social media apps, that the President is trying to shut down. He is using executive orders which kind of leads into my next question:

To what extent is Duterte’s leadership style influenced by leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin? Is he mimicking the behaviors of these other leaders or is this different from what we see from these big economic powers?

Well, if you are from the outside looking in right now that would certainly be the impression that you would get; that he is mimicking leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro. But really when you track Duterte’s development as a political animal, I would say that they are the ones that are mimicking him. Keep in mind that Duterte, before he was President, was Mayor of a major city in the south called Davao City (where I lived for 10 years). The various things that he is doing across the country, he did there for more than 20 years, in terms of killings, really tough crime and drug policies, and being this strong-arm, small-town dictator. He, his family, and his very close cronies managed to run the city pretty much by using fear as a weapon. Nothing happened in that city without him knowing about it or his imprimatur. The extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users and suspected criminals, among them children, were pretty common in the Philippines.

The people of Davao thank him for that because they have been fed this myth that his style has made Davao City a very safe place, which is of course not true. But that is a very populist issue. It resonated with a lot of people particularly in a poor area like that. That is pretty much how he ran the city; he controlled every aspect of life, from the executive department, legislature to the political culture and media, you name it. Now, his daughter is the Mayor, his son is a Vice Mayor and his other son is a Congressman of that city. It is a political dynasty in the making since 1986 and they are still doing it.

In the 2016 campaign for the presidency, he made it clear from the very beginning that he was going to do to the entire Philippines what he did in Davao. He promised to kill and kill and kill people. And that is exactly what happened. It has been four years of that kind of life in the Philippines with all this bloodshed and violence, including all of these violations of human rights and civil liberties. He perfected that and he now has total control of the Philippines. He is still very popular because he made it very clear what he was going to do and that he was willing to kill people.

In fact, that is where the difference actually lies between him and Trump, Bolsonaro, and so many others. Bolsonaro and Trump a lot of that is just rhetoric. They have some policies to be sure but none of them, as far as I know, have killed people. When you are a leader in the Philippines and you promise to be violent for the sake of ruling your country, to use force by any means necessary so that your country will prosper, and then deliver on that promise, it is considered strong political will. That is why they voted for him. He did not make it secret during the campaign that he was going to kill people. He trotted out Davao City, the city that he ran for 20 years, as exhibit A of what he was going to do and people just snapped it up. It is that really tyrannical mindset of the populace that is a plague. Because of that context, I would even say that these folks like Trump and Bolsonaro copied him, not necessarily the other way around, but of course, we can quibble about that.

Would you say that his administration's support has remained constant throughout these four years, throughout his term, or do you think that there is more divisiveness between the citizens of the Philippines regarding his administration?

Well, if you look at surveys that are used to gauge his popularity, it has been steady. There are a few times when he dips a little bit, depending on the issues of the day, but it is still very high according to the polls. Even if you talk to people in my work, journalists who interview people, they still like him. They are willing to cut him some slack and give him the benefit of the doubt because they have never seen anybody like him before.

To be fair, the country is not economically tanking. It is only that recently because of COVID-19 that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is at its worst and that is true in many other countries in the world. This is a very adroit, skillful way that he has been using violence to try and prop up his popularity.

Recently though, I have noticed there has been a noticeable rise or intensity of criticism particularly on social media amongst people who used to support him. Many have said publicly that they voted for him, but they no longer support him. This is the other thing: I suspect that many more are now really disenchanted with him, at the very least, but are not about to expose themselves by expressing these thoughts on social media. Precisely because in the Philippines, since Duterte came along if you are a critic you are going to be slammed down immediately by the supporters of the President in the press and social media. There is no incentive for anybody to criticise the government, the President, and the government publicly. But recently you have seen more and more of that and that is why I think all of these efforts to try to tamp down social media and threaten social media users with cyber-crimes and cyber libel laws are key to try to maintain that popularity.

How would you describe the protests in Manila, as there has been limited coverage by what you would call Western news sites? What is the rhetoric surrounding them and what issues do the protesters care about?

There have been protests in the Philippines consistently, whether online or in the streets. Because of COVID-19, they are forced to use the University of the Philippines’ campus to hold their protests because the police are not allowed inside the campus. So that is kind of the refuge where they do protests, as well as online.

But, it is a bit misleading to say that the political identities of the protesters have been general because in the Philippines we have a very robust civil society and leftist movement. That has always been the case, even before the Duterte, and they protest practically everything. Before COVID-19 you would have people protesting literally every day. These are groups that specifically belong to the Philippine left, they are not a general population kind of protest. There are organised protests and recently non-political people are getting involved, particularly online.

The Philippines ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That would be reinstating the death penalty which would be a violation of this International Covenant. How should the international community respond to such a violation if the government does reinstate the death penalty?

To be honest, that is going to be something unprecedented if ever that happens. I am not sure if there has been any country in the world that has breached the Second Optional Protocol and was then sanctioned by the international community. I may be wrong on that one, but I do not think there has been. How are they going to sanction the Philippines? I mean obviously there are mechanisms within the United Nations on how to tackle these things.

For instance, at the upcoming Human Rights Council session in September, this is one issue that the UN member states and the Human Rights Council should tackle. I think they are in a position to mete out whatever sanctions they can on the Philippines, but definitely, at the very least, this will solidify the Philippines’ position as an international pariah, as far as human rights and the death penalty is concerned.

Keep in mind there are countries in the world, in the West, that are much more concerned about the death penalty than they are with the drug war killings happening right now in the Philippines. We are talking about, for instance, the European Union which ranks capital punishment number one on their list. One of the sanctions that may happen, if the Philippines decides to violate the Second Optional Protocol, is for the EU to finally sanction Philippines' trade. Basically, the Philippines is part of the General Systems of Preference Plus (GSP+) scheme that the EU has with several countries. This means that if you are an exporting country you enjoy significantly fewer tariffs if your human rights record is better. To our consternation, the EU has not sanctioned the Philippines for the drug war killings, but I am very sure that once they impose the death penalty they will do so. Using the GSP+ mechanism, tariffs will go up and then the country will suffer more. Obviously, the UN Human Rights Council can set up some mechanism, a commission of inquiry or investigation, into that and all these other killings as well.

Would you say that it is the international community's responsibility to hold the Philippines accountable to their international legal human rights commitments?

Definitely. That is what we have been clamoring for these past four years, precisely because local domestic accountability mechanisms are not working. The government has been trying to circumvent the international accountability mechanisms. For instance, the Philippines got out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has been waging this propaganda battle against countries which have been supporting the UN Human Rights Council resolution looking into the Philippines in June 2019. They have been spreading a lot of lies about the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which released a report on the killings in the Philippines. So absolutely, it is a moral duty and responsibility of the international community to act on what is happening in the Philippines.

Now we understand at the UN Human Rights Council, a lot of politics can occur. Some countries, in fact, have said to us that the Philippines government is trying to engage [with the international community] and they do not think that any commission of inquiry or investigation [on human rights] is going to work at this point. [Foreign allies] are willing to bend over backwards for the Philippines [because] when you look at what is happening in this country, the [domestic] institutions seem to be working. The legal system, for instance, is intact. So, for ordinary cases, people can still go to court, file complaints, go to the police, and all of that. But for specific issues like extrajudicial killings and the drug war, the government is just not performing as well as it should. It has been violating international human rights laws and, unfortunately, largely in the last four years, the international community has decided to look away.

When it comes to COVID-19, the numbers in the Philippines keep on rising. Could you speak a little bit more about the idea that Rodrigo Duterte is using the methods from his drug war in implementing lockdown policies for the COVID-19 outbreak and what that has been looking like there?

To be fair to the President, he has not said anything, publicly at least, to suggest he was going to specifically use methods of the drug war to deal with COVID-19. Here is the thing: it is almost like muscle memory. He is so used to using the police, state forces, and the military to deal with anything, that even with a pandemic his instinct is to deal with it in a law and order mindset rather than a public health mindset. He drew what was the most convenient weapon for him, which was state security forces, and this largely explains why the Philippines has been performing very badly in terms of dealing with COVID-19. You can extrapolate from all the statements that he is not deviating from the drug war mentality.

On the other hand, in terms of the clear violations by police and government on the rights of people during COVID-19, there is not a lot of action on the part of the government to try to hold those people to account, which is again a similar trend that we have seen in the drug war. He will try to solve everything militarily because that is just their mentality.

The COVID-19 response led by former generals is just mind-blowingly bizarre f you ask me. People should be restrained from going out, but in the Philippines, that has been happening in a way that is just abusive. Now to the point that even the President himself is blaming the public for supposedly not following military guidelines and causing the spread of COVID-19, which is laughable.

The majority of those suffering from COVID-19, particularly in urban areas, live in hovels, slum areas, and rooms. During the summer when the COVID-19 pandemic started, they lived in tin houses, literally, where they could not go out, and the sun was so bad they were like sardines in a room trapped in the heat. The moment they went out they were accosted, arrested, and thrown in jail no social distancing whatsoever.

What do you imagine the future of the Philippines to be like if the International community does nothing to hold Rodrigo Duterte’s administration accountable for its human rights violations?

Well, that is obviously the worst-case scenario. I cannot even imagine but here is the thing: if he is not held to account, if nothing is done by the international community, if the killings do not stop, if those perpetrators are not investigated, and if the drug war policy is sustained, it would be really catastrophic for human rights in the Philippines.

Politically though, I would say that the longer-term impact of that would be that it would validate and enable a lot of these other politicians who are now copying the ways of Duterte and spreading them all around the country. We have what I would like to call mini-Duterte’s - politicians from the cities and provinces who are using his methods already to try to govern using fear using violence and bloodshed.

If Duterte gets away I am pretty sure a lot of this would happen worse across the country and that is just too horrifying for me to contemplate. I wish that does not happen, but this is why the international community needs to act.