The Election Of Marcos Jr. Brings Fresh Human Rights Concerns To The Philippines

A new government has ascended to power in the Philippines, led by Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.. There is hope this transition from former President Rodrigo Duterte’s leadership will also mark a transition from his record of human rights abuses. However, concerns remain about the possible treatment of Filipinos under Marcos Jr..

Under Duterte’s notorious “war on drugs” policy, the Philippines saw extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses against drug users and dealers. This brutal programme was pivotal to Duterte’s election in 2016, and since then he has incited violence against the Filipino populace and argued for the legislation of free legal assistance to those accused of unlawful killings.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency has recently announced that the total number of reported drug suspects killed has reached 6,248 people as of 30 April 2022. Human Rights groups claim the figure is closer to 30,000 people. Additionally, since President Duterte took office, over 300,000 suspects have been arrested, and over 230,000 drug operations have been conducted.

On 15 September 2021, the International Criminal Court agreed to open an investigation into possible Crimes Against Humanity committed between 2016 and 2019, during Duterte’s time in office. It will also investigate extrajudicial killings committed in Davao City between 2011 and 2016 when the former president was mayor of Davao.

Although Duterte’s time as President is over, the election of Marcos Jr. brings new human rights concerns to the Philippines.

Marcos Jr. was elected in a landslide victory in May, winning almost 60 percent of the vote; the first majority victory in decades. Marcos Jr. has promised to maintain Duterte’s war on drugs but to “do it with love”. This involves pledges to increase funding for rehabilitation programs and to focus enforcement efforts on big-time dealers and traffickers. This is opposed to the former policy in which poorer Filipinos were targetted by Duterte’s government and vigilante death squads. However, as a Senator, Marcos Jr. has previously supported the introduction of capital punishment for drug trafficking.

Marcos Jr.’s electoral victory came after he ran on a populist platform that embraced social media and disinformation campaigns. These included attempts by Marcos Jr. to erase online evidence of the human rights abuses and economic crises under the authoritarian rule of his father – Ferdinand Marcos Sr.. Instead, Filipinos were bombarded with a wave of online content that glorified his father’s time in office as a “golden age” and period of economic growth.

Marcos Sr. ruled for two decades, from 1965 to 1986, including a period in which he held absolute power under martial law. Eventually, a popular uprising overthrew Marcos Sr. and forced him into exile. Marcos Sr. and his family stole up to $13.5 billion of public money and oversaw gross human rights abuses. This included the torture, arrest and ‘disappearance’, of his political opponents.

The Marcos family represent a ‘political elite’ of Philippine society, so there are fears that the family’s return to power will result in a crackdown on political opponents and rival families. In response to the election of Marcos Jr., survivors of his father’s regime protested against the result at the Commission for Human Rights in Manila. The authorities responded by using water cannons against the protestors to prevent them from continuing to the Congress building.

On the one hand, although the Marcos Jr. presidency does raise legitimate concerns, it equally offers the Philippines an opportunity to correct past wrongs.

In a meeting with the United Nations Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, Gustavo Gonzalez,  Marcos Jr. has publicly expressed his commitment to enshrine the human rights of Filipinos and greater accountability of government. Gonzalez stated that “President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. [has] confirmed his commitment. He even shared that he is conducting several consultations to ensure the best way of supporting the human rights agenda”.

Human Rights Watch has called for Marcos Jr. to use his first State of the Nation Address on 25 July to show a “serious commitment to human rights”. The address is President’s opportunity to outline the government’s policies for his 6-year term in office.

Outside of this public address, Marcos Jr. can commit to improving human rights in several ways.

First and foremost, the current “war on drugs” needs to be scrapped to prevent further unlawful incarceration and death. Amnesty International reports that the war on drugs has failed to decrease the use and availability of drugs in the Philippines. Instead, it has only served to undermine the human rights of millions of people. Marcos Jr. and his government should abide by their electoral commitments and implement a more humane policy on illicit drugs.

Although previously Filipino Government has launched a joint “human rights programme” with the United Nations which intended to address human rights abuses under the war on drugs, many human rights groups have found it to be inadequate.

For this reason, Marcos Jr. should also order the Philippine Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation to further examine and prosecute any alleged extrajudicial killings committed by authorities. This must include an impartial and transparent review of alleged attempts by the police to falsify evidence, to justify the unlawful killings.

Finally, Macros Jr. can make a statement on human rights by immediately releasing Leila de Lima, a former Senator, human rights advocate and vocal critic of Duterte. She has been in custody since 2017. Additionally, charges should be dropped against Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and owner of the news website Rappler. She was also a vocal critic of the former president. Releasing both would show respect for human rights and freedom of speech.

Marcos Jr. comes to power with the baggage of his father’s authoritarian rule that left the Philippines politically scarred and economically poorer. While concerns remain about the resurgence of the Marcos family, Marcos Jr. has an opportunity to meet his public commitments, and rebuild the country’s reputation by respecting human rights and adhering to international law. In doing so, the outcomes for Filipinos will improve as they will be able to live in safety with their human rights protected.


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