A Duterte-Democrat President Redux?

A Biden Administration will see strong headwinds as it pertains to Washington’s relations with Manila.

International Human Rights Day in Manila
A human rights advocate holds up a mask featuring Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte during a march to mark International Human Rights Day in Manila on December 10, 2019. (Photo: Maria Tan, AFP)
Malcolm Cook

Malcolm Cook

17 December 2020

The last months of the Obama administration in 2016 saw Philippine-US relations spiral into crisis. Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, reacted very badly to public expressions by the Obama administration of their human rights concerns with Duterte’s signature war on drugs. Duterte used these criticisms as a justification for his personal pivot away from the US to Russia and China.

The stage could be set for history to repeat itself more forcefully and with worse outcomes for the bilateral relationship during the first few months of the Biden Administration.

The stars are already starting to align for such a reprise. On 14 December, Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court prosecutor investigating Duterte’s war on drugs, submitted a report to the Court claiming that her office had a “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes of humanity – murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm – were committed in the Philippines between 1 July 2017 and 16 March 2019. This, she said, was “in connection to the WoD campaign launched throughout the country,” referring to President Duterte’s war on drugs campaign. Bensouda’s next step is to decide whether to seek authorisation to open a formal investigation in the first half of 2021 “into the situation in the Philippines”.

On 15 December, the Electoral College in America confirmed Joe Biden as president-elect. During the election campaign, Biden and the Democratic Party promised to return human rights to the centre of US foreign policy and to “speak and act with clarity and purpose on behalf of human rights wherever they are under threat”. Bensouda’s report as well as earlier ones by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International concluded that human rights are more than under threat from Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs. 

The 3 November Congressional elections in the US also saw Senator Edward Markey and Representative Jackie Speier from the Democratic Party re-elected. Last year, Markey sponsored Senate Resolution 142 that condemns Duterte’s war on drugs and the related arrest and detention of Philippine Senator Leila de Lima. This led the Duterte administration to ban Markey from entering the Philippines. Speier sponsored House Resolution 233 that also condemned Duterte’s war on drugs and the de Lima arrest.

If Bensouda is authorised to open a formal International Criminal Court investigation into Duterte’s war on drugs next year, this will immediately garner significant international media coverage. It will also provide a very favourable context for more action from the US Congress and Markey and Speier, and more pressure on President Biden and his administration to act on the war on drugs in the Philippines in line with their centrality of human rights pledges.

… completing the Philippines’ withdrawal from VFA and a broader campaign against the US-Philippine alliance led by President Duterte in his last year in office is easier to envisage.

President Duterte would very likely respond harshly to the authorisation of a formal International Criminal Court investigation. In early 2018, he ordered his administration to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court after Bensouda was authorised to conduct a preliminary investigation into the war on drugs. One could sensibly foresee an even stronger reaction to the announcement of a formal investigation and any expressions of support for this investigation from foreign governments, and particularly from Washington.

The US-Philippine alliance is already suffering from the ramifications of Duterte’s war on drugs, with President Duterte threatening to remove its vital legal framework. In February this year, Duterte ordered the Philippines to withdraw from the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US after Senator Ronald dela Rosa had his travel visa to the US cancelled. Dela Rosa, then head of Philippine National Police, led from the front in the country’s bloodiest early months of the war on drugs and is a close confidant of the president. The Philippine withdrawal letter triggered the Agreement’s one-year cooling-off period. In June, Duterte agreed to suspend this withdrawal process for six months and then extended this suspension for a further six months in November.

Come May 2021, it would be very difficult to envisage Duterte cancelling the Philippines’ withdrawal from the VFA or extending again the suspension of this process if the International Criminal Court has commenced a formal investigation into the war on drugs that is publicly supported by the Biden administration. Instead, completing the Philippines’ withdrawal from VFA and a broader campaign against the US-Philippine alliance led by President Duterte in his last year in office is easier to envisage.

The Obama presidency ended with Philippine-US relations and the alliance in strife due to President Duterte’s war on drugs. The Biden administration could face this same problem in its first few months. This time, however, the ramifications on the long-standing alliance could be more dire.

Dr Malcolm Cook is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/212

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.