It’s difficult to take issue with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte – who was elected in a landslide on June 30 – over his criticism this week of what he termed with a sneer “UN experts”. Representatives of the United Nations had called a press conference in Manila to chastise his popular policy of summarily executing drug dealers. For all intents and purposes the UN officials had parachuted into the Philippines to complain very publicly about how bad the situation was. Duterte blasted them, saying they were “stupid” to criticise his forceful means of combating the illicit drug trade, and he threatened to pull the Philippines out of the UN.
What has alarmed the UN, rights groups and progressive non-governmental organisations is the extra-judicial execution of more than 600 alleged dealers and the arrest of another 10,000 suspects since Duterte came to power. But he won the election espousing just such a policy and was given a clear mandate to carry it out. He vowed to show no mercy – and ignore international democratic and judicial norms – in ridding the country of dope peddlers.
As drastic as summary executions are, Duterte’s reaction to the UN’s effrontery found empathic listeners in other nations that are struggling with widespread drug abuse without any assistance from the world body. The United Nations has been deservedly castigated time and again for producing little apart from elegantly written reports on global problems, which it then proceeds to ignore. It loudly highlights social issues and then fails to provide the resources that individual governments need to tackle them.
The Philippines is one of the longest-established democracies in our region, with a strong checks-and-balances system and robust news media. If the voters dislike anything he does, they are entirely capable of replacing him. It is not for the UN to assail domestic measures against a drug problem that most citizens regard as out of control and in need of a drastic solution.
In faraway New York and Geneva, however, the high number of extra-judicial killings has alarmed the UN elite. They have now voiced that alarm without acknowledging far worse rights violations occurring every day in the Middle East – and apparently without the slightest sense of irony. Such condemnation is rarely levelled at the United States or the more powerful members of the European Union, despite their gross infringements of rights and instigation of conflict.
Duterte might well quit the UN if there is more such criticism from the UN, but the UN cannot afford any such “Brexits” by its member-nations. To calm the waters, it should immediately, if temporarily, bar its officials in Manila from speaking out on domestic matters.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, knows well that the situation regarding democracy and rights is different in Asia than in the rest of the world. Efforts he’s making before his term of office ends this year to build a lasting legacy on rights are foundering on the North Korean nuclear menace, the Middle East quagmire and the global threat of extremism. His legacy is not helped either, though, when his officials focus instead on troubling developments in smaller nations.
Thai leaders have had bones to pick with Ban, too. Most recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha responded to UN criticism of military rule not by lashing out like Duterte, but by dispatching a team to New York to “explain” why rights are temporarily being held in abeyance here. Duterte’s furious reaction perhaps drove home the point better – that condemnation of domestic policy is not appreciated. We trust the United Nations got the message.