Does President Duterte believe in human rights?

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a historic document that, next to the Bible, has been translated into the most number of languages.  The extent of its dissemination, however, does not say how many people have read and understood it, or believe in it.  Today, 69 years later, the universal relevance of this document continues to be debated.

Many countries, including those that attained their status as independent nations after World War II, consider this declaration as essentially reflecting a Western Judeo-Christian view of humanity. They question its applicability to the vast majority of the world’s peoples, who are sprung from different cultural traditions and are still struggling to free themselves from less advanced socioeconomic conditions. Some leaders of these new nations regard human rights as yet another tool of imperialism.

According to this view, the UDHR fails to give equal weight to value systems from non-Western traditions that prioritize social harmony over individual rights. One of the most forceful statements of this position has come from the proponents of so-called “Asian values.” Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir were among the early advocates of this philosophy of governance. After declaring martial law in 1972, Ferdinand Marcos, too, began to speak along the same lines, ignoring the fact that the Philippines was among the original 48 nations that signed the declaration.

That this kind of thinking continues to hold sway among Asia’s people merely confirms the rootedness of a specific view of human rights that has not been fully examined. With the emergence of Rodrigo Duterte, who has dared to confront the issue of human rights head-on, I believe it is time we sorted out the various ideas that complicate the discussion of this topic.

Does President Duterte believe in human rights?

I think it would be hard to prove that Mr. Duterte does not believe in human rights. In his own speeches, he justifies the killings that have been committed in the wake of his violent antidrug campaign as a price that has to be paid in order to protect the rights of Filipinos to live in a drug-free society, and to uphold the rights of the victims of drug-crazed criminal offenders. Between drug offenders and their victims, there is no question in Mr. Duterte’s mind whose rights must take precedence: the right to retribution of victims, and the right to protection of potential victims.

I will hazard a guess and say that I believe that the average Filipino shares this commonsense attitude.

It is a way of thinking that simplistically demonizes people who “corrupt the youth,” and that promotes an idealized view of a cohesive community of law-abiding citizens who need to be protected from deviants. In short, it is a view of society that neatly divides people into outsiders and insiders.

The real world, as we know, is far from being that. Addictive drugs permeate all levels of society. Some are classified as more dangerous and injurious than others, and declared illegal—the obvious example being crystal meth or shabu. Some are highly restricted in their use and, though not illegal, normally require a medical prescription to obtain them. A highly addictive drug like Fentanyl, which the President says he sometimes takes as a painkiller, is an example of the latter.  It can affect the brain no less. But, more to the point, a lot more people are probably addicted to alcohol than to shabu, and become equally violent when drunk. Yet liquor is not prohibited, and alcoholism is not regarded as a crime but a public health problem.

Deviance is largely in the eye of the beholder. The poor man’s addiction may be no more injurious to self and society than the rich man’s recreation. It is perhaps no accident that Mr. Duterte’s drug war has focused almost exclusively on drug offenders from the lowest rungs of society. It is far easier to detect shabu addiction among the poor who have limited access to private space than among the middle and upper class users who indulge their habit in the confines of their homes and condos.  For the same reason, the wealthy man’s addiction to cocaine, a very expensive drug, would be less visible than the poor man’s addiction to shabu. Perhaps most important of all, in our society the poor are more vulnerable to police abuse than the rich.

An inclusive view of human rights simply means that we don’t discriminate drug offenders according to their social class, and, more importantly, that we don’t regard them as less entitled to the protection of the law than the victims of drug-related crimes. It takes time to promote this view, which needs a less hierarchical and more compassionate society in which to ground itself.

I don’t think it is of any use to try to show that President Duterte and the millions who applaud his murderous war on drugs do not believe in human rights. As ironic as it may be, they employ the same language of human rights to justify the killings that have resulted from this war. They often do this with conviction.

Interestingly, they also believe that drug addicts are no longer human. On more than one occasion, President Duterte has referred to drug addicts as animals. The way around this, I think, following the American philosopher Richard Rorty, is not to debate what is human, but to focus and reflect on what distinguishes the outsider (the nonhuman) from the rest of us.  We might realize that, if there be any at all, it is of little importance.