Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

The death toll is more than 1900, and rising fast. Police and vigilantes seek out and shoot to kill those they decide are drug dealers; no warrant, no arrest, no questions, no consequences. Since Rodrigo Duterte took office as President of the Philippines and unleashed his “war on drugs”, that poor country is losing itself in a growing wave of extrajudicial killings, perpetrated or authorised by its own instruments of law and order.

It’s a confronting phenomenon to observe in a democratic nation, but shouldn’t be surprising. In the Philippines, it’s so much part of the culture that they even have a special word for the practice of murdering people without due process; “salvaging”, they call it. The faint echo of the Spanish Inquisition, which that word evokes, can’t be a coincidence in this fiercely Catholic country.

I happened to visit Manila in 1982, in the midst of the period of martial law, which had been declared by then-president Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. We were warned to keep to the main tourist sites. Most visibly strange to my naive sensibilities were the men, dressed in various approximations of paramilitary gear and carrying all sorts of guns, arrayed menacingly on every corner. I didn’t know a lot about it at the time, but it didn’t feel normal or safe.

Marcos had been democratically elected in 1965. He was a dictator from 1972 to 1986, when he declared that the threats from Communist and Muslim insurgents necessitated martial law. Under that guise, he changed the constitution to entrench himself and went about all the usual moves — ending press freedom, closing Congress, arresting his political opponents, concentrating all political and military power under his personal control, and pillaging the country’s wealth for the benefit of his family and cronies.

As with many dictators of that period, Marcos enjoyed the protection and largesse of the United States, which had a vested interest in its military bases in the Philippines. Marcos, according to George H. W. Bush, was remarkable for his “adherence to democratic principles and … processes”.

Apparently, democratic processes included extrajudicial murder. Credible sources tally up 3527 extrajudicial killings and 35,000 cases of torture in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship. The victims were a mix of political opponents, mostly mislabelled “Communists”.

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Of those killed, 2520 were “salvaged”, meaning that their remains were left for the public to see. This practice is directly reflected in the current wave of killings.

The culture of extrajudicial killing in the Philippines originated in the Marcos period and the total breakdown of legal institutions that it entailed. As all of the agencies of state, particularly those with guns, were turned to the purposes of the ruler, any pretence to accountability or due process disappeared.

This is typical of any dictatorship. What’s unusual and interesting in the case of the Philippines is that the breakdown of legal protections which Marcos triggered, and specifically the practice of enforcing law by shooting people in the head, has continued more or less unabated until now. This is despite the fact that the Philippines has managed to maintain a fairly robust democratic system since Marcos was overthrown in 1986.

In 2007, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, reported that at least 100 journalists, union leaders and other reform advocates had been killed by agents of the Philippines government in the previous two years. This had occurred during a period when the then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared an “all-out war” against the left wing New People’s Army insurgency, triggering indiscriminate murders by the military of perceived opponents of the government. Handily for the government and its US protectors, the global War on Terror provided cover for what was really a continuation of the extra-legal punitive culture developed under Marcos.

The killing business has continued under each successive president, but has never reached the epidemic proportions achieved by the Marcos regime. That is, until now.

Duterte came to office explicitly promising to ramp up the body count; nobody in the Philippines should claim to be surprised that that’s exactly what has transpired. He ran for president on his record as mayor for 22 years of Davao City on the island of Mindanao, where he was known as “The Punisher” and had been criticised by the UN Human Rights Council for openly tolerating the extrajudicial killing of alleged criminals by vigilante death squads.

Duterte wears the criticism like a sheriff’s badge. In 2009, he stood up in the state senate to explain his stance: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.”  In his presidential campaign, he called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and said that, if elected, he may kill up to 100,000 criminals.

If you elect a guy who likes to be called “Duterte Harry”, he will happily accept your licence to unleash hell on the streets of your country. There’s nothing about Duterte, or the history or prevailing conditions in the Philippines, which suggests the current state-sanctioned murder spree is going to abate before the death toll climbs a lot higher.

The public thirst for immediate, uncompromising justice exists in every society. We’re all a little bit attracted to Duterte Harry’s approach. We know, through his iron certainty, who the bad guys are, and we feel the buzz of righteous vindication when he blows them away — judge, jury and executioner on the end of a .44 Magnum.

Of course, that’s fantasy. In reality, when we arm our agents of law enforcement with blind trust that they will execute justice with literal deadly force, renouncing the need for any process at all other than their personal conviction of guilt, mayhem is the only possible result.

The Philippines has now spent 44 years demonstrating how democracy can coexist with state-sponsored murder. There’s a key lesson in that: the institutions of democracy alone are not sufficient to protect and preserve the rule of law. That rule is an incredibly fragile thing. Marcos destroyed it, and his country has, so far, been unable to reinstate it.

The arbitrary abuse of state power is a current trend in every modern democracy, including ours, variously justified by counter-terrorism, crime prevention and border protection. There’s an object lesson not far to our north that democracy won’t prevent the knock on the door late at night.