PHILIPPINES: Failed justice system cause for extrajudicial killings

The extraordinary measures taken by the newly appointed President of the Philippines, to allow the killing of persons involved in the drugs trade and notorious criminals, has received global attention. It is one of the most unusual moves made in any country in recent times. While President Rodrigo Duterte has said about 6,000 people may be killed already, closer to a thousand persons have been extra judicially executed.

The executions are done through the police, paramilitary groups, and also hired criminals. Speaking to the BBC, one woman from a hired gang said she had already killed five persons. According to her, 20,000 pesos are given for each killing, to be shared among those actively involved in each assassination.

If the purpose of this policy was to stop the drug trade and other notorious crimes, the normal medium through which it should have been done is the justice system. The police should have been assigned to investigate matters to arrest offenders, file indictments with the assistance of prosecutors, and then adjudicate in court. Thereafter, it would be the duty of the judges to give appropriate punishments when the cases are proved. In the Philippines however, both the people and the government, have lost faith in the judicial system. The Asian Human Rights Commission has previously reported extensively on the systemic problems plaguing the country’s ‘rotten justice system’.

This loss of faith in the system, which has deteriorated to the extent that even reforming it is considered a hopeless task, is the reason for finding alternative methods to deal with crime. The President himself has chosen extrajudicial measures such as assassinations as the alternative to law enforcement. The extrajudicial measures do not require any proof of anyone being involved in the drugs trade, or to what extent they are involved. Identification of the culprit takes place in secret, by the police, paramilitary and others.

A fundamental norm of justice is that only the judiciary can decide on punishment for crimes, after ensuring a fair trial. These norms are being callously ignored however, as the dysfunctional system makes observing such norms an impossibility.

President Duterte has termed the United Nations as being naïve and foolish for condemning his actions. In his view, the realism lies in doing what has to be done, regardless of how it is done. The crisis in the Philippines is thus about the very nature and function of the law. By opting to act outside the law, the Government is also setting examples for people to act outside the law. Furthermore, the government will do this not only in the issue of drugs, but any other issues as well. In this way, the very measures that are supposed to reduce crimes will deepen instability and create a political and social environment legitimizing illegal and criminal means to solve matters.

The case of the Philippines should be studied carefully, because similar tendencies can be seen in many other countries. Shifting away from law and justice based ways of dealing with crimes and other matter is becoming quite common in several Asian countries. This reflects an enormous change of attitude regarding what a decent society should be, and whether the government is obliged to ensure that everything they do is within the law as well as the rules of morality and ethics. This crisis should be studied by everyone concerned with democracy, human rights and rule of law in Asia.