Duterte’s war on drugs and socialist activism
The appeal of President Duterte is his paradigm for change which is solely rested on pledges to rid society of criminality and drugs. In brief, he and his operators were able to capitalize on the people’s frustration with the absence of change in material living conditions for the past 30 years. The crime rate zenith in the last 10 years and the increasing pervasiveness of methamphetamine use are among the starkest indicators of our crisis wracked society. While the liberal democratic regimes from mother to son, on one hand never saw the democratization of essential services and the affordability of the commons, essentials which should have provided everyone opportunities to grow, develop and get out of poverty, vulnerability to falling victims to crime without access to any remedy is also of major concern to most Filipinos, especially those who cannot afford to pay for private security and gate themselves up in private subdivisions. This administration’s crime and drug response is largely limited to a violent public order and safety framework. This social cleansing methodology, the Davao Death Squad brought to the national level, resulted in the deaths of almost 7000 coming from the most impoverished sections of Philippine society. This had earned criticisms and counter-actions from a range of groups, the most intense coming from human rights organizations and also from other nobly driven formations in varying intensities. We should always bear in mind and remind others that the liberal democratic regimes since 1986, which have failed the people, are to blame for the rise of such a violent president with authoritarian tendencies.
Human Rights, while severely discredited, attacked and misunderstood, has become a household byword and more talked about than ever before. Human Rights ideals, values and principles have not just become controversial in the mainstream public, misled to believe these shield criminals from culpability and are obstacles to development, they are also contentious among those genuinely working toward change.
Connected to forefront issues in the first six months of the Duterte administration, there are underlying dynamics and realities which progressives deserve and should become aware of. There are four interconnected topics I wish to briefly discuss, the relation between widespread abject poverty upheld by the capitalist poverty inducing system and crime and drug prevalence; the varying levels of appreciation and acceptance of human rights values in the social movement; dispelling prevailing notions about human rights; and the lessons of human rights work in brief. These are meant to spur discourse among progressives with respect to our attitudes toward criminality, drug dependency and Human Rights in general.
The poverty and crime/drug nexus
No human being is born “bad” or is genetically predisposed to social dysfunction, save perhaps for a relative few exceptions like psychopaths, individuals born without the part of the brain which provides empathy. Our personalities and behavior are products of either a brutalizing or enabling social environment. Human beings are at their best and able to fulfill their true nature as compassionate and collaborative individuals under decent living conditions. In Filipino we say, “mas madaling magpaka-tao at makipagkapwa kung ikaw ay may isang disente at makataong pamumuhay”. In the same way that we understand that “selfishness”, something that the insecurity perpetuating setup instills massively among people, is not something innate in human beings (and therefore not a barrier to socialism), causing others harm isn’t either. Most Filipinos who have become lost are simply victims of the harsh realities they were born into. Sure, at the personal level, poverty may not always be an excuse for crime. Most impoverished people live upstanding and socially productive lives after all and some who live in comfort lose direction in life. Nonetheless, from a sociological (and socialist) perspective, mass deprivation and insecurity deteriorates the social core values of a people. Statistics demonstrate that the most impoverished countries in the world, and concomitantly, the poorest regions in the Philippines have the highest crime and drug dependency rates. Empirical data also show that the drop of “quality of life” crimes, misdeeds due to misery, hunger and survival needs deprivation, always coincides with the decline of heinous acts. Simply put, the poverty inducing system has created a huge market of beaten down, impoverished individuals predisposed to becoming exploited into a life of crime and drug abuse. The two Duterte feature social ills, his crisis, are thus merely results of a much deeply entrenched social root. President Duterte is thus amiss regarding the prevalence of crime and drugs being obstacles to development and progress. On the contrary, it is the other way around. The response should therefore be reversed. Sowing a climate of fear through a hard-lined approach with state perpetrated and sanctioned killings and the restoration of capital punishment and the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility are false palliative responses which never worked in other contexts. These simply do not address the social roots of the ills. Some may argue that a form of artificial social discipline is fashioned through a climate of fear but this will always be fleeting. Genuine public order and safety, when human beings conduct themselves well according to their nature, is dependent on decent living conditions for all. While all being good natured, some humans are more tenacious, being able to withstand environmental challenges better than others. An enlightened and tolerant mindset may consider that those who go astray in society are less capable of clinging on to a good moral compass and thus are less fortunate. As the nobly driven and enlightened sector, the left must always expose the Duterte social cleansing approach for what it really is, an attack on the most exploited, vulnerable and neglected. It must assert that a permanent crime and drug solution entails structural change, the establishment of a government responsive to human need and facilitates the requirements of a life of dignity for all. The tow immediate just, sustainable, effective and compassionate methods to address crime and drug prevalence which activists have also been openly calling on the Duterte administration to undertake are radical reforms in the anti-poor and dysfunctional criminal justice system and the adoption and implementation of a public health harm reduction strategy based approach to the drug dependency and peddling problem.
The disunity between human rights and socialist activism in brief
Historically, Human Rights work has served the social movement well. The massive human rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship gave birth to a vibrant human rights community producing home grown experts in the field. Many human rights leaders today are credited for having had established our original human rights NGOs which work projected our issues locally and abroad and secured both protection to political and social activists as well as support of varied sorts for sustaining the anti-dictatorship struggle. Sadly, almost 43 years after the establishment of our oldest human rights organization, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), belief and appreciation of Human Rights values, ideals and principles remains wanting and vary among progressives. Certain misperceptions prevail among kasamas such as HR being simply an issue of its own, detached from the mass struggles of peasants, labor, urban poor and even the right to commons and genuine land reform to mention a few.
Many political activists also think human rights to be limited to Civil and Political Rights- the right to be free from torture, enforced disappearance and extra judicial killings. Some even have a narrower interpretation, that human rights violations are limited to politically motivated acts. The need stemming from the conditions during the dictatorship molded the mandates of our Human Rights NGOs. Financial limitations and political factors prevented the subsequent broadening of these very focused mandates and stunted the ability to respond to violations experienced by ordinary citizens, (e.g. victims of public officials due to being accused of common crimes) not just political activists. More formations responding to Economic Social and Cultural Rights were established in the past decade.
The late nineties saw the structural disconnect or decentralization of human rights work. The Human Rights Committee, preceded by the rift in the left a few years before, ceased to exist and human rights organizations, being less influenced by a central structure were left to pursue their specific thematic focuses. Many became detached from the mass struggles stream and work involving human rights thematic issues became disconnected from organized efforts toward militant structural systemic change. Conscious efforts to openly relate thematic human rights work to the oppressive structural setup steadily declined. So did the conscious efforts to politicalize new human rights workers and NGO staff. Nonetheless, conscious and critical leaders of these NGOs maintain the change oriented vision. In fact, the mass killings and other grave violations against drug suspects under the Duterte administration moved our human rights organizations into action by adjusting their mandates and thereby leading the national actions to counter the arbitrary derogation of the rights to life and due process.
With the resurgence of authoritarian rule and the worsening attacks on activists and basic sectors looming, there is an urgent need for us to consciously reunite the socialist movement and human rights community. This entails not just organizing kasamas in the field of human rights but more importantly, upgrading the human rights appreciation and understanding among political and social activists by dispelling misperceptions through discourse. Unfortunately, the disconnect between the mass struggle and human rights ideals has resulted in confusion and double standards which have challenged the effective response of certain sections of the left when the killings of the very class whose lives progressives have fought so hard to uplift started to rise. While political killings in the past stirred immediate outrage among agents of change and groups, the lack of appreciation for human rights universality and indivisibility silenced some among us for quite some time on the killings of regular citizens perceived to be society’s undesired. For this, we must question and re-evaluate our socialist conviction and how we shall conscientize and orient future kasamas.
No inconsistency between Human Rights and Socialist principles
Human Rights is not a framework that prescribes a structural political and economic setup. Free from any partisan objective, they are normative standards which define non-negotiables or must-haves for human beings to be able to live a dignified and secure life, a life free from fear and want. They are the foundations or requirements of a life of dignity. The formula or road toward the realization and sustainability of these requirements of a life of dignity is something entirely different. Human Rights have been used as a political tool, both by the capitalist West and national struggles for liberation. It figures prominently in the grand scheme of global politics so much so that it has left a not so good impression among those working for structural change. While often regarded as western concepts and treated with suspicion among our ranks, their recognition and framing after the two world wars through the UDHR and subsequently the two covenants, was nobly undertaken and not surreptitiously motivated. The truth is that, like Marxism and Socialism, Human Rights have evolved throughout history through peoples struggles. Any human rights educator will be able to impart this by recounting the human rights saga which includes contributions from all around the world.
Human Rights, as principles that define the requirements of a life of dignity is for one an effective tool to expose the capitalist system and elite controlled governments. They are a means to push authorities to widen the space for people’s participation and concede to opportunities and social protection. They have the potential to serve as an enabling framework for the adaptation of and steadfast commitment to just and humane practices as well as principled positioning and actions in the social movement. As we wage the struggle toward an egalitarian future, we must consciously condition today’s socialists, ourselves, to value the strict observance of the most basic rights, foremost of which is the right to life. The entire left must become intolerant to the violation of the right to life no matter who the victims are. Our objection to killings should be second to none no matter what our tactical or strategic objectives are.
While holding the state accountable, we must recognize the past mistakes of the left in other contexts and our own. If we want to prevent the mistakes of past regimes claiming to be socialist, we must cultivate a culture of human rights among our progressive communities. While struggling for the rights and welfare of the toiling class, a culture of respect for human rights must prevail among us so that any excesses on our part will be avoided, that oppression and violations of the most basic rights of any individual or group does not occur in the future. A culture of respect and defense of human rights will help address the risks that make movements which seize power prone to brutal acts.
Even in an established socialist setup, human rights should remain the people’s tools to ensure the sustainability of checks and balances, transparency and safeguards. A socialist government should be guided by human rights principles as it ensures a system that works for human need. As we ensure that the means of production and labor surplus is managed collectively and benefits everyone, not just a few, that produce is meant for human need for all, not for profit, we must also guarantee that security of person protection, social services and the access to the commons are of adequate standard. The limited of liberal democratic setup is clearly inconsistent with the advancement of human rights ideals. Ultimately, because human need and equality is at its core, only a socialist framework can realize the full respect, protection and fulfillment of all human rights for all.
We must trust that the socialist framework can withstand the test of human rights standards. We must remember that while a socialist framework ensures fair and equitable conditions, people, socialists, even collectively, are still fallible and are prone to abuse.
Today, Human Rights values have the potential to further strengthen the socialist ranks in the Philippines. Our range of mass movements may diverge in analysis of existing structural conditions and methods in waging the socialist struggle but we can unite on the basics, the non-negotiables, free of any sectarian differences. We must collectively agree to put the respect for human dignity foremost in our agenda. This should be the basis of our struggle and convictions.
For starters, Human Rights should cease to be used and perceived to be a means toward and end, a mere propaganda tool to discredit a reigning administration. Forward looking progressives should work together so that these ideals and values are better regarded, respected and fought for by all forces of the left. These should not be seen as reformist but an integral and sincere part of the struggle.
With fascist conditions just around the corner, the mass movement must all the more wrest the human rights struggle from the liberal brand. We must embrace these ideals and values even if they are strongly associated with reactionary forces which never took them seriously to start with. Human Rights NGOs must likewise return to a more militant and grounded stance.
Marxist human rights activists have long wanted to help bridge the human rights disconnect through the support of other kasamas. While believing in the struggle for a just, humane and oppression free future and maintaining faith in all sections of the left, these human rights defenders recognize today’s pressing need to help reshape certain attitudes and mindsets in the left.
What confronts Human Rights Workers today
Human Rights work has recently become much more challenging. Because they were cast to the frontlines in Duterte’s war on drugs, Human Rights Defenders, those openly denouncing the killings, doing documentation work and those who provide any kind of assistance to survivors or families of victims of EJKs have become at risk. Perhaps the perils are not yet as grave compared to those suspected of using or peddling drugs from impoverished communities but their vulnerability has increased. There have been Human Rights Defenders and leaders of basic sectors killed while responding to incidents related to the war on drugs.
Human Rights values, tenets, ideals and principles have easily been distorted and discredited. The reason behind this can be attributed to a handful of factors.
Before the rise of Duterte, the HR community and the CHR, already knew that Human Rights Education work since the Cory administration had barely reached the grassroots. This recognition was shockingly reaffirmed with the rise of Duterte and his propaganda team which almost effortlessly discredited human rights defenders, the CHR, and whatever positively associated to and understood as human rights to clear the path for mass human rights violations in the war on crime and drugs.
The Human Rights confusion goes way back during the transition from the Marcos dictatorship to the elite liberal democratic system. I already mentioned our own misinterpretations of human rights within the social movement above. Framers of the 1987 constitution, only codified a Civil and Political Rights mandate for the Commission on Human Rights, perhaps lacking the understanding that their violations are mere products of the non-fulfillment of Economic Social and Cultural Rights.
Human Rights are attributed to the EDSA revolution and all the liberal democratic regimes that followed. The non-trickle down of Human Rights understanding and its link to liberal administrations (clearly rejected by the people) which never prioritized their respect protection and fulfillment in the first place made it easy to have people abandon these important tenets.
Why has the Death Penalty not become taboo in Philippine society? Why has the open efforts of President Duterte and his cohorts in congress to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility not caused any public outrage? Why does the killing of 7000 people pass without the masses forcing the perpetrator president to resign? Can we blame the people for this mass lack of regard for the human rights and dignity if many of those among us, socialists, remain misguided?
February 20, 2017