Duterte vs the United Nations: the David and Goliath war of words heats up

Philippine President Rodrigo DutertePhoto: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

United Nations officials continue to press the Filipino President on his commitment to clean the streets from the filth of the drugs trade by any means necessary, but he has no time for their protests and says the global body is irrelevant and overstepping the mark. 

By Argee Abadines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is not backing down on his war against drugs that has left over 6,000 people dead despite a fierce burst of criticism from the United Nations (UN).

Among his high-profile critics in recent weeks is the human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He wants Duterte to be investigated for murder because of his personal admission that he killed criminals when the mayor of Davao. During the recent 33rd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Al Hussein slammed the southeast Asian leader saying, “The President of the Philippines’ statements of scorn for international human rights law display a striking lack of understanding of our human rights institutions and the principles which keep societies safe.”

Duterte spat back just as strongly with a jibe that, “You are just [an] employee of an office there whose subsidy comes from the pockets of the member states. You strut around as if you are a sovereign idiot. Go back to school. You do not know diplomacy. You do not know how to behave to be an employee of the UN. You do not talk to me like that, you son of a bitch.”

UN officials want to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings, but Duterte has dismissed their approach

The other thorn in Duterte’s side is Agnes Callamard. She was recently appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, meaning the allegations of killing on the streets of Duterte’s nation fall squarely in her mandate. She wants to come to the country and assess the situation and wrote, “We call on the Philippine authorities to adopt with immediate effect the necessary measures to protect all persons from targeted killings and extrajudicial executions.”

She further emphasises, “Claims to fight illicit drug trade do not absolve the government from its international legal obligations and do not shield State actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings. The State has a legally binding obligation to ensure the right to life and security of every person, whether suspected of criminal offences or not.” President Rodrigo Duterte has dismissed her concerns, saying the bloodshed on the streets is drug syndicates clearing out their ranks and not the work of the police force.

Meanwhile, Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. blames Callamard for influencing the decision by the US Millennium Challenge Corporation to end financial aid to the Philippines. But again, President Duterte mocks his critics saying of America, “I do not need your assistance … 400 million? China is going to release to me US$50 billion. Go home; I do not need your aid.”

Duterte has highlighted inefficiencies in the United Nations system, and he is not alone in doing so

And although this criticism from representatives of the global body is to be expected it seems to be unproductive, as Duterte continues to enjoy very high ratings (83% according to a recent Pulse Asia survey) among Filipinos. It does not help that the justice system lags behind in getting criminals behind bars and there are too few courts and judges to handle the enormous backlog of court cases. If the UN actually wants to engage with the Philippines it should consider support for ailing national systems, such as the assistance in solving the drug menace that China is offering.

On the other side of this growing spat, Duterte counters that the UN is incompetent and lacks relevance in today’s world. And in some ways, he is right. The inaction of the UN member states allowed the genocide of over 300,000 civilians in Darfur. And despite the Security Council’s primary responsibility to ensure international peace and security, divisions over the Syrian Civil War have highlighted the dysfunction at the heart of the system.

Against this backdrop and a string of other recent challenges, Duterte is not the first national leader to speak out against the organisation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labelled the UN as “a burden on humanity” due to its “unfair structure” and decision-making power when his country, already heaving under the pressure of Syrian refugees, was asked to again open its borders. Turkey had already spent US $10 billion on refugees since 2011 while the UN has only provided US $455 million for refugee support, he said.

The structure of the United Nations is inherently weighted towards the interests of the West

He also highlighted the persistent inequality in the current set-up, where there is no Muslim nation with a permanent seat on the Security Council. He and others believe this means that this vital organ of the larger system caters only to the geopolitical interests of its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also recently joined Duterte in speaking out against the bloc’s workings following a resolution demanding his country, “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem.” Nothing but “old-world bias against Israel,” he said.

But things are changing. America currently provides around a third of the UN’s budget, so the attitude of President-elect Trump is a major factor in the future workings of the coalition of 193 nations. And his opinion is as clear as Duterte’s, “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” he tweeted.

The United Nations will continue to press for fundamental human rights for all

So is the battle of wills between the Philippine leader and the UN’s big characters a necessary defence of human rights, or more a clash of cultures? Considering the worrying tales of murder and fear in Duterte’s nation the UN’s institutions and agencies will continue the verbal tirade and hope to investigate these extrajudicial killings. It has to; doing so is at the core of the mandate given to it by the original cosy club of Western-minded nations over 70 years ago.

This will provoke and aggravate Duterte to launch further insults against the ambassadors of the UN, for his world is very different. It is one of reality over idealism and a keen sense of doing whatever is necessary to deal with the drugs trade. As such it is unlikely that UN will be able to investigate the matter thoroughly. In fact, Duterte’s government has already set preconditions for ground visits such as public debates on the issue which the rigid protocols of the UN cannot accommodate.

Duterte and UN representatives are unlikely to reach a common ground

Duterte firmly believes he is not implementing a genocide. Instead, he is just doing his duty in striking fear into the hearts of criminals, and it is this fundamental mismatch of attitudes that means he and the UN’s officials will never see eye-to-eye. With a flush of passion he says, “UN, you can only investigate for genocide when you kill without giving a hoot if you are killing children, whole communities. But when you kill criminals who fight with you, and criminals who fight among themselves, that is our duty.”

Unless the representatives of the UN stop humiliating President Duterte internationally with their strong words – and take a more diplomatic line, the no-nonsense leader will continue to be hostile. But in some ways, the two are as bad as each other. Duterte refuses to change. The UN is incapable of doing so. Human rights, caught in the middle, are once again the victims of the once-great organisation’s chronic failings.