In the Philippines right now, court threats seem to be the order of the day. Following on from the filing of complaints against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in an impeachment bid by an opposition lawmaker last week – a bid that has about as much chance of surviving as an ice cream at a Boracay beach in May – a self-confessed killer is now threatening to bring his case against the president to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
That’s right; a criminal by his own account is the anti-Duterte coalition’s star witness who’s getting ready to accuse the president of crimes against humanity. If anyone asked us where such a bizarre twist in the name of justice could happen, we’d have to say, “Only in the Philippines”. We wonder – oddly perhaps to some there – why this murderer isn’t actually in prison himself and awaiting trial. That case would seem to be a slam dunk – so much so that even the Philippines’ slug-paced justice system would have a problem dragging it out.
Both these efforts to bring down the Philippine president come from the same cradle. The impeachment bid was put in play by House of Representatives’ member, Gary Cajolo Alejano, of the Samaháng Magdalo party list fame – a tiny nationalist group of which he’s the founding president, and leading Duterte critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV is the main attraction. Though not remotely Liberal, Magdalo has rallied to the Liberal Party cause to remove Duterte.
When news of the pending ICC filing first broke, it wasn’t clear which particular killer was to bring the charges; there were two possibilities. Either ‘Davao Death Squad’ (DDS) hitman, Edgar Matobato (photo), or bent cop and self-proclaimed DDS member, Arthur Lascañas, both of whom have given tearful testimonies at separate Senate hearings. Tears have great currency at such events in the Philippines. Subsequently it was revealed Matobato drew the short straw.
What we were never in doubt over, however, is that this attempt to put Duterte on trial at an international court has the fingerprints of Trillanes and fellow blood-baying senator, the now custodially restricted alleged drug queen Leila De Lima, written all over it. Matobato and Lascañas are very much in their pocket. An in the background – as in the impeachment filing – is the shadow of Philippine Vice President and Liberal Party chairman, Leni Robredo.
These witnesses belong to them – even if the killers had to switch their testimonies to get on board the anti-Duterte train. Both had previously claimed there was no such thing as a Davao Death Squad; much less were they members of anything like that. The main thing though, as far as De Lima,Trillanes and Co are concerned, is that they’re on board now.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s reaction to the flurry of legal efforts to overthrow him has been predictable. Of them he had this to say: “I will not be intimidated and I shall not be stopped by just … what? International Criminal Court? Impeachment?”
Unfazed, Duterte doubled down on his promise to rid his country of illegal drugs. “The drive against corruption, criminality and drugs will resume and it will continue and it will be brutal,” he said at the weekend. “I will not for a moment be out of focus on that. I rose on what I promised and I will fall on that. I will deliver on my promises, even if it would cost me my life, my honour, and the presidency. I can lose them all but I will comply with my promise,” he said.
Trillanes and De Lima have been stalking Duterte well before he became president. In the case of De Lima it goes back to his days as mayor of Davao City when she was the Justice Secretary under the previous Liberal Party administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. Trillanes got fully engaged as Duterte mulled over the possibility of running for election towards the end of 2015.
The fact is, despite all their best efforts and the considerable resources expended over several years by De Lima’s Department of Justice, no actual proof exists that can tie the president to either the DDS or to extrajudicial killings associated with his War on Drugs. That’s of course unless you count the perjured accounts of Matobato and Lascañas which the already-disgraced ICC might.
This is a court that’s finding increasingly less favour around the world. The US won’t subscribe to it, Russia, South Africa and Burundi which did have subsequently pulled out and its chances of gaining new member sign-ups are looking bleak. In February, the African Union called for all 34 ICC African member states to withdraw from the court. And so what it needs is exactly what the anti-Duterte coalition needs – a victory. And that synergy, in part, is what’s inspired this symbiosis.
Furthermore, the near-inevitable failure of Alejano’s impeachment complaint, rather than weakening the chances of the ICC lodging a case against Duterte could actually strengthen them. Indeed, that may be its prime purpose. Here’s why.
If the anti-Duterte camp can show that it’s exhausted all constitutional means of bringing the president to justice for crimes against humanity, as they might phrase it, then the ICC will be at liberty to proceed. In fact, the court under its terms of reference can’t proceed otherwise. In 2001, the Philippines became a signatory of the United Nation’s Rome Statute which created the court in 1998.
With the Liberal Party driving the agenda – though not wanting to appear to – the moves to unseat Duterte have been internationalised. Through the efforts of Robredo, De Lima and others, the relentless campaign is being fronted and boosted by elements within the UN, the European Union and the US Democratic Party along with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and, of course, an array of media friends.
It’s a formidable force, no question about that. But there’s a great deal at stake. The international campaign is broader than just an attempt to remove Duterte; it’s an attempt to halt and reverse what the Liberal establishment refers to as “populist politics” and a swing to the right – a new public mood that’s rejecting the Liberal-Progressive order in the West.
Exactly the same smear campaign that’s targetting Duterte is going on against US President Donald Trump; in Europe the Lib-Left media is in overdrive to arrest the losses its pet parties are suffering in poll after poll. The British referendum by which the UK elected to withdraw from the Left-dominated European Union – Brexit – was another major setback for the Liberal cause.
In the recent elections in the Netherlands, the Liberal candidate although holding onto power, lost seats as his populist rival increased theirs in the country’s parliament. In Denmark and Sweden, too, the Left’s been losing ground. And the big prizes, France and Germany, will be the next test beds in this battle royal as they go to the polls later in the year. And in both those countries, the Liberal establishment is worried.
Against that backdrop it’s easy to see how tantalising a victory against populism in the Philippines must seem. Duterte embodies everything the Liberal movement detests. He’s pragmatic; not a Liberal trait. He’s prepared to rip up the status quo which Liberals have been establishing for years. His vision for his country runs largely contrary to the global Liberal vision. He rejoices in being politically incorrect. He embraces grassroots causes which Liberals traditionally shun in favour of the fringe – the War on Drugs is such an example. In short, he’s been marked as a public enemy of Liberal-Progressivism.
Furthermore, by ‘re-Asianising’ the Philippines – not least through refocusing the country’s foreign policy away from the US and towards China – he’s de-Americansing it. The result of that is that the Philippines can no longer be taken for granted as a proxy of the West and by extension a proxy of western liberalism. Duterte wants his country to find its own path and for the Liberals that’s simply not acceptable. For them it must stay on Liberal rails.
That’s why the political elite has determined he must go. But it’s a fool’s errand because even if through some fluke Duterte did go, his followers would not. In fact, they’d be more determined than ever to ensure that Duterte’s vision for the country was realised.
Overthrows and coups only work when you have the numbers on your side; and in the Philippines the Liberals – despite their noise, their money and their foreign support system – simply don’t have the numbers. The irony is that for them to have any chance of running the country following some form of forced takeover, they’d need to impose martial law to do it; but to do that they’d first need somehow to get the army on their side. And right now there’s more chance of pigs taking to the air.