I am particularly interested in the situation in the Philippines in my role as an expert on American arms transfer policy, because I am interested in the consequences of American arms sales on repressive regimes. The Duterte government is at the top of the list. Duterte’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic raises other questions about the nature of his regime and the wisdom of continuing to arm his military and police.
As has happened in the United States, Duterte downplayed the threat posed by the virus, criticizing a “hysterical” public response in early February. Now that the virus is spreading all over the country, the Duterte regime has adopted an extreme militarized approach in the face of a huge public health challenge
On March 24, Duterte was granted extraordinary emergency powers by the Congress of the Philippines, which allowed him to run hospitals and public transportation, and reallocate funds in the 2020 budget, to fight Covid-19. Critics have said that the powers go beyond what is necessary to fight the virus and will only strengthen the current government.
“NO TO EMERGENCY POWERS! Wrote Jay Batongbacal, a professor of law at the University of the Philippines, in a Facebook article suggesting that Duterte is abusing the powers he already has. And Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group of Filipino lawyers, described the emergency measures as “a repetition of martial law”, during a webinar organized on April 1 by the Malaysian Movement , a Filipino human rights group.
As of Friday, the Philippines had 428 deaths from Covid-19 and 6,459 confirmed cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Al Jazeera reported that military and police checkpoints are ubiquitous in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Health workers lack protective equipment, health workers say, but on April 1 the government said it had acquired $ 35 million and was awaiting delivery. Some were delivered last week and the country has started producing more locally, the government said.
A telling fact about Duterte’s approach is that, in early April, his regime had arrested almost as many people for violating Covid-19 curfews and locks as it had tested the virus. Also in early April, protesters were arrested after requesting government assistance, which took weeks to reach the country’s poorest people, the first batch of unemployed workers receiving assistance from March 25-26 and the first tranche of money paid to the poor in early April.
During the closure of the pandemic, the government censored journalists and at least one Facebook critic, according to Human Rights Watch. On April 1, Duterte went on television and said that his instructions to the military and police who apply the quarantines were: “If they become unruly and fight you and your life is in danger, shoot them the! “
Although the country’s legislature has refused to grant Duterte broader powers – an initial bill sought to give him the power to take over private companies and public services, for example, to fight Covid-19 – but any additional power is a bad idea, in the case of a leader who governs by threats, has boasted of personally killing people and seems to have no restraint.
While the United States grants the President some authority to direct companies to emergency production during a crisis, and while many have called on President Donald Trump to make more aggressive use of this law, grant more power in Duterte is naturally much more worrying.
Duterte’s violent approach to Covid-19 is consistent with his “war on drugs”. Since the start of the war on drugs, nearly 30,000 people have been killed in the campaign, according to an estimate made last spring. The regime specializes in alleged extrajudicial executions, carried out without the benefit of accusations or trials.
While it militarized the streets and gave orders to shoot and kill anyone who retaliated and threatened the life of the security forces, the Duterte regime gave the military almost complete control of the relief effort, the body overseeing the payment of the aid monitored by a group of experts. current and former generals.
At least one hospital has raised the issue of lack of protective equipment, while the executive director of Amnesty International in the Philippines has accused security forces of “putting offenders at curfew in dog cages” and of “Hit people with sticks”.
By not criticizing Duterte, the United States bears indirect responsibility for its repressive approach to Covid-19 and the continuation of the brutal war on drugs that preceded it.
President Trump had kind words for Duterte before the pandemic, congratulating him in 2017 for doing “incredible work on the drug problem.” The United States has provided more than $ 385 million in security assistance to the Philippines since 2016, the year Duterte took office, according to the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor; and, until Duterte’s cancellation of the agreement, at least, US forces regularly engaged in military exercises with the Philippine armed forces during Trump’s tenure.
A recent snag about a US decision to deny entry to the United States by a Filipino senator and former Duterte national police chief, presumably because of his role in human rights abuses, has prompted Duterte to cancel the visiting forces agreement that allowed the United States to keep troops on Philippine soil for joint exercises.
But arms sales and military aid are expected to continue – noting the ongoing cooperation, US Assistant Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper said in February “a number of important markets the Philippines is looking to continue with us ”- strengthening the regime in the process.
While the United States could criticize Duterte and use other means to pressure him (in addition to denying entry to a senator and an ally), President Trump has instead chosen to publicly support Duterte.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and other human rights groups have called for an end to American arms and military support to the Duterte government as leverage to end the systematic killings and other human rights violations
Aid to help the country fight Covid-19 should be channeled through independent non-governmental organizations that can more effectively deliver aid to those who need it most.
President Trump is unlikely to take such action, but Duterte’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis and his systematic violations of basic human rights should persuade Congress to do so.