Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Delivers More Violent Threats Against Catholic Priests

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said that Catholic Church leaders “should be killed” in a speech this week, adding to his history of violent rhetoric. The president spoke in frustration at persistent opposition from the Catholic Church on Duterte’s ‘War On Drugs.’ The Church has asked him to tone down his rhetoric, claiming it emboldens crimes against priests. At least three Filipino priests have been killed and one seriously injured since December of last year.

The threats toward Catholic leaders are not new, but they re-establish fear among the repressed group. In the Philippines, more than 90% of the population are Catholic, but their leaders are in hiding due to constant death threats. Father Amado Picardal spent 20 years in the Philippines and has aided the ICC in court case proceedings. The Catholic News Agency reported he escaped a death squad outside his monastery in Cebu and is now living in hiding in the mountains. The discrimination and targeted violence against specific groups are clear indications of dictatorial rule.

Duterte took office in June 2016 and has repeatedly threatened violence against certain groups. He has used homophobic slurs, made jokes about rape and threatened to hang officials opposed to his policies. His presidential campaign focused purely on a ‘War On Drugs,’ specifically against shabu, a drug also known as crystal methamphetamine. His quarrel does not only sit with drug dealers or importers, but also focuses on shabu addicts, who he believes cannot be rehabilitated. In 2016, he compared himself to Hitler, saying that, he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts.

The World Bank shows that in 2015 more than one-fifth of the population in the Philippines lived below the poverty line. One Filipino man interviewed for Vice said that he began taking drugs so he could stay awake for three to four days at a time at work to feed his family: “If I stop, the money stops.” When people are able to find work, it is in an overwhelmed service economy that pays minimal wages for labour-intensive work. Once they are addicted, Duterte’s violent search and extrajudicial killings means they cannot ask for help without risking their lives.

Foreign leaders have been slow to condemn Philippine president’s actions, with difficulties arising in the United Nations due to his backing from the Chinese government. As an independent body, the International People’s Tribunal found President Duterte guilty of human rights violations in September this year. The decision is not legally binding but hopes to support formal criminal proceedings within the United Nations framework. The ICC launched a Crimes Against Humanity inquiry into Duterte in February this year. The inquiry resulted in him withdrawing the Philippines from the Rome Statute, the multilateral treaty that created the ICC. Withdrawal from the statute is a sovereign right, but has no impact on proceedings that were already under the Court before this happened.

It is difficult to know when the violence in the Philippines will cease. The withdrawal of the nation from the Rome Statute sets a worrying precedent, but the ICC has done well to pursue criminal charges in a clear case of crimes against humanity. The international community must take additional steps to condemn Duterte’s actions and introduce pressures on his power and his violent reign. The problem seems to lie with China, which has previously given the Philippine president personal assurance that China will not allow his removal from office.