The Philippines under Duterte: possible genocide?

On the 19th of June our FMS political café: “The Philippines under Duterte: possible genocide?” took place in Humanity House in the Hague. Despite the warm weather there was a high turnout, with around eighty people very eager to learn more about the topic and share their opinions.

Changing continuities

Jeroen Adam, a university professor in Conflict and Development Studies at Ghent University, linked the current political situation in the Philippines, to the fall of the Marcos regime and the subsequent implementation of liberal democracy in 1986. “The current use of violence is not radically new from the violence used after the introduction of liberal democracy in 1986. There is a certain structure of violence that is being maintained”, it is basically a “changing continuity”. Democracy in the Philippines has gone hand in hand with violence for a long time.

However, things have changed since Duterte came to power in June 2016. Firstly, the use of violence used to be mediated through certain structures by the traditional elites in Manilla, however now it is more direct, stimulated by the president himself.

Jeroen AdamSecondly, local politics have entered national politics instead of the other way around. Duterte is an example of the growing influence of local politics, he started as mayor and was not a member of the traditional elites in the Philippines. Duterte capitalized on public’s frustration about the corrupted ruling elite in Manilla, enjoying great support from the poor, the middle-class and upper-class as well as with people living on the countryside and within cities such as Manilla.


Is there a case for genocide?

No, professor of International Law at Leiden University and Senator of the Dutch Labour Party, Nico Schrijver, argued. If a case is opened against Duterte for his ‘war on drugs’ at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, it will be extremely difficult – from International Law perspective – to prove that his acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. After all this is how genocide is defined in the Rome Statute, which the Philippines have ratified. The only possible, but still rather difficult, option could be charges for crimes against humanity which are defined as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”.


After the break, Fritz Kohle, who lived and worked as a filmmaker in the country, spoke shortly about his experiences in the Philippines. Among others he argued that both big and small corruption remains a major challenge. The current fight against corruption and drug related crime has strongly contributed to the success of Duterte.

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Final speaker was human rights activist and spokesperson of the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) Ellecer Carlos. This is currently the broadest human rights formation in the Philippines, composed of over 70 organisations and 40 recognised representatives of peoples struggles in the Philippines. He said that drugs and crime are the result of deeper social problems such as poverty and the failure of past administrations. Carlos is an avid opponent of the drugs war waged by Duterte and said that it has led to formalised impunity – “the judiciary and legislative section have become co-opted- and has made human life cheap”. He further said that it has become difficult for human rights groups to continue their work, because of “Duterte’s aversion to human rights”. He concluded by asking several questions; “How do we restore rule of law?” “How do we protect drugs defendants?” And “How do we hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable?”.


After Carlos’s talk, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions and express their opinion regarding the topic. Many people acknowledged that the failure of past administrations has had a negative impact on Philippian society. It was suggested that if Duterte is a symptom of an underlying problem then it is important that we look at the failing political, social, and economic institutions. There were different opinions about whether Duterte’s policy is a positive or negative development, and so this was actively discussed. While it was argued by some that Duterte is at least fighting corruption and has made the Philippines safer, others emphasised the importance of the rule of law. “The debate should not be reduced to the conflicting data about the killings in Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ and if this is more or less than under previous presidents. Every dead is one too much”, someone noted.

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We hope that this event was a starting point to introduce the topic and start a discussion and that the conversation regarding the Philippines will be continued.

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