Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has built his regime on fear and repression, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that his response to the Covid-19 crisis is following the same script. Unless there is a sharp change of direction, the results of this military-driven approach will be disastrous for the Filipino people.
I have taken a particular interest in the situation in the Philippines in my role as an expert on US arms transfer policy, because I am interested in the consequences of US weapons sales to repressive regimes. The Duterte government is high on that list. Duterte’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic raises further questions about the nature of his regime and the wisdom of continuing to arm his military and police forces.
As occurred 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 throughout the country, the Duterte regime has adopted an extreme, militarized approach to a massive public health challenge
On March 24, Duterte was granted extraordinary emergency powers by the Philippine Congress, which has allowed him to direct hospitals and public transit, and to reallocate funds in the 2020 budget, to fight Covid-19. Critics have said the powers go beyond what is needed to address the virus and will merely entrench the current government.
“NO TO EMERGENCY POWERS!” wrote Jay Batongbacal, a law professor at the University of the Philippines, in a Facebook post suggesting Duterte is abusing the powers he already has. And Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group of Filipino attorneys, described the emergency measures as “a rehearsal for martial law,” during an April 1 webinar sponsored by the Malaya Movement, a Filipino human rights group.
As of Friday, the Philippines had recorded 428 deaths from Covid-19 and 6,459 confirmed cases, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University. Al Jazeera has reported that military and police checkpoints are ubiquitous in Manila, the Philippine capital.
Protective equipment has been in short supply, according to health workers, though on April 1 the government said it had acquired $35 million worth of it and was awaiting delivery. Some was delivered last week, and the country has begun producing more locally, according to the government.
A telling fact with respect to Duterte’s approach is that, as of early April, his regime had arrested almost as many people for violating Covid-19 curfews and lockdowns as it had tested for the virus. Also in early April, protesters were arrested after demanding government relief aid, which has taken weeks to begin reaching the country’s poorest residents, with the first batch of unemployed workers receiving support March 25-26 and the first tranche of cash delivered to the poor in early April.
During the pandemic lockdown, the government has censored journalists and at least one critic on Facebook, according to Human Rights Watch. On April 1, Duterte went on television and said that his instructions to the military and police enforcing quarantines were, “If they become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead!”
Though the country’s legislature declined to give Duterte more far-reaching powers – an initial bill sought to give him the power to take over private companies and utilities, for instance, to fight Covid-19 – but any additional powers are a bad idea, in the case of a leader who governs through threats, has bragged of personally killing people and seems to know no restraint.
While the US grants a president some authority to direct companies toward emergency production during a crisis, and while many have called for President Donald Trump to make more aggressive use of that statute, granting more power to Duterte is understandably far more concerning.
Duterte’s violent approach to Covid-19 is in line with his “war on drugs.” Since the start of the drug war, nearly 30,000 had been killed during that campaign, as of one estimate made last spring. The regime specializes in suspected extrajudicial killings, carried out without benefit of charges or a trial.
While it has militarized the streets and given orders to shoot and kill anyone fighting back and threatening security forces’ lives, the Duterte regime has given the military near total control of the relief effort, with the body overseeing its disbursement of aid controlled by a panel of current and ex-generals.
At least one hospital has raised the issue of lacking protective equipment, while Amnesty International’s Philippines executive director has accused security forces of “putting curfew violators inside dog cages” and “beating up people with sticks.”
By failing to criticize Duterte, the United States bears some indirect responsibility for his repressive approach to Covid-19, and the continuation of the brutal drug war that preceded it.
President Trump had kind words for Duterte before the pandemic, praising him in 2017 for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The United States has provided more than $385 million in security aid to the Philippines since 2016, the year Duterte took power, according to the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor; and, until Duterte’s cancellation of the agreement, at least, US forces have regularly engaged in military exercises with the Philippine armed forces during Trump’s tenure.
A recent spat over a US decision to deny entrance to the United States by a Philippine senator and Duterte’s former national police chief, likely because of his role in human rights abuses, has prompted Duterte to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement that had allowed the US to keep troops on Philippine soil for joint exercises.
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But arms sales and military aid are likely to continue – noting ongoing cooperation, Assistant US Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper in February mentioned a “number of significant procurements the Philippines are seeking to pursue with us” – bolstering the regime in the process.
Whereas the US could criticize Duterte and use other means to pressure him (aside from denying entry to a senator and ally), President Trump has chosen instead to support Duterte in public.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and other human rights groups have called for an end to US arms and military support for the Duterte government as leverage to end systematic killings and other human rights abuse
And aid to help the country address Covid-19 should be channeled through independent non-governmental organizations that can more efficiently get the aid to people who need it most.
President Trump is unlikely to take such actions, but Duterte’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and his systematic violations of basic human rights should persuade Congress to do so.