The Human Rights Legacy of Duterte’s Presidency: A Cautionary Tale

Cherise Kim, Editor

Since assuming office in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has constantly had the world on its toes, waiting with baited breath for what his next move may be. Since ascending to the presidency, Duterte has garnered a reputation — one which seemingly cannot be constrained by borders — for his highly controversial and incendiary comments concerning topics such as women, the Catholic Church, the United Nations, and the media. As a politician, his actions do not stray far from his rhetoric of demagogy.

Prior to 2016, Duterte had served as the longtime mayor of Davao City, where he made a name for himself as a hard-on-crime “strongman” leader. This image came replete with extrajudicial killings, with Duterte even stating in 2009 that “criminals” and those who are “part of a syndicate” are “legitimate targets of assassination.” [1] Killing by death squad was a common occurrence in Davao during his mayoral tenure. This then became a nationwide occurrence once he ascended to the presidency and launched his “war on drugs,” a massive campaign aimed at targeting drug traffickers and users alike for their alleged crimes.

Despite the intended aim of his attacks, though, Duterte has not stopped at syndicates and addicts. Journalists, community leaders, and political activists have been among those killed by security forces in the last five years. In fact, the Philippines became the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental activists in 2018. [2]

For the last five years, Duterte has shown no signs of sublimating himself — nor does he necessarily have to. Presidents of the Philippines are limited to one term, so he has no obligation to make himself an attractive candidate for a  re-election campaign. Even if he did have a chance at re-election, though, he would stand a very good chance of winning; his most recent approval rating showed a 91% approval rating, one of the highest in the world for any executive leader. [3]

His image as a “law-and-order” strongman, though clearly working for him domestically, has had far more mixed reactions globally. It appears that despite the international outcry over his draconian actions and unashamedly authoritarian rhetoric, he remains popular among the overwhelming majority of his people. 

To put things into context, the Philippines itself is no stranger to mass killings initiated by the nation’s top political offices. Throughout its history, several instances of extrajudicial killing have taken place; for instance, members of a high-ranking political clan were recently found guilty of inciting the Ampatuan massacre of 2009, in which 58 people were killed as the result of election violence gone wrong. [4]

And as far as this type of tragic event goes, extrajudicial killings and death sentences for drug offenses are also not totally uncharacteristic of the region. Indonesia had a wave of deaths under leader Suharto during his 1967-1998 regime with the supposed aim of “reducing crime,” while Thailand underwent its own “war on drugs” in 2003. [5] Whilst cruel and inhumane, this is unfortunately not wholly abnormal throughout the history of the Southeast Asia region largely as the result of a complex history entangled in the legacies of colonialism.

As his term nears its end in 2022, questions remain: where does Duterte fit into this picture of Philippine history? Where does he fit in the camp of global human rights? Is he part of a trend of rising global authoritarianism, a continuation of leadership in a country whose history has long been marred by violence, or a complete anomaly of his own?

There is no simple answer to any of these questions. His term does not expire until 2022, a year from now; from March 2020 to 2021, many of us have certainly seen how the world can undergo rapid and radical changes in just a year. However, it does not look unlikely that he will change gears in a major way given that he simply has very little pressure or obligation to do so; the remaining time frame of his presidency is short, and he does not have re-election promises to honor.

There is certainly a possibility that he will be remembered fondly amongst much of his citizenry along with maintaining an active presence in Philippine politics; his daughter Sara is the current mayor of Davao City and has been predicted by some to eventually follow in her father’s footsteps once again by mounting a campaign for the presidential office, a move which would not be atypical in a country where familial political dynasties have often been characteristic of the nation’s top political offices. [6]

However, Duterte may not be remembered quite so fondly in the grand scheme of history, which generally tends to frown upon mass extrajudicial killing. While his legacy will certainly be complex, one can only hope that history will leave him and the actions of his presidency behind as a cautionary tale of a 21st-century slide into authoritarianism gone painfully awry. 

[1]  “”You Can Die Any Time”.” Human Rights Watch. March 20, 2017.

[2] “World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Philippines.” Human Rights Watch. January 16, 2020.

[3] “Philippines’ Duterte Scores Record High Rating, despite Virus Crisis.” Reuters. October 05, 2020.

[4] Mcdonald, Joshua. “The Ampatuan Massacre: A Decade-Long Fight For Justice.” – The Diplomat. January 03, 2020.

[5] Iyengar, Rishi. “The Killing Time: Inside Rodrigo Duterte’s Drug War.” Time. August 25, 2016.

[6] Beltran, Michael. “A Duterte Dynasty?” The Interpreter. March 01, 2021.