How to critique Duterte

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SASS ROGANDO SASOT

DURING his inaugural speech on June 30, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte said: “Allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.” For any critique of Duterte to be substantive and not mere rhetorical flourishes, it must start from a careful appreciation of the sources of his actual mandate.

When his name got prepended to the “war on drugs” (i.e. Duterte’s war on drugs), this fight got framed into nothing but a “personal crusade” rather than a national security situation that must be decisively acted upon consistent with a mandate.

Prior to assuming the mantle of presidency, Duterte had longed been mentioning the source of his mandate to resolve the drug menace by all means necessary: the Letter of Instruction 1 (LOI 1) that former President Gloria Arroyo signed on July 4, 2001. LOI 1, or the “National Anti-Drug Program of Action,” is an administrative issuance whose purpose is to address the drug menace. It is still operational, and thus must be implemented to the hilt.

LOI 1 declared the drug menace “Public Enemy No. 1 of the entire Filipino People” and the “No. 1 Threat to National Security.” The first mission that LOI 1 mandates is “to dismantle/neutralize all drug syndicates, producers, traffickers, pushers and their cohorts in the police/military/government office.” That is a pretty strong directive which befits its characterization of what the drug menace is. Thus, when Duterte said that he isn’t just “ordering the police to just (do) a few punitive actions” but to actually “destroy the apparatus of the illegal drug trade,” he was simply restating that mission.


Any critique of Duterte that does not start from his mandate to protect our country from national security threats is just navel-gazing. Is Duterte still performing his duties consistent with his mandate? That is the real question.

Surely, since Duterte also took an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution, he must also uphold human rights which are part of the Constitution. But given that Duterte is also duty-bound by the very same Constitution to address national security threats, human rights aspirations must be balanced against the imperatives of national security.

To determine which side gets the longer end of the stick, risks are carefully balanced. The rule-of-thumb is that individual rights are supreme. However, there are exceptions to the rule. If protecting individual rights pose a risk to society, then the balance should be ruled in favor of national security. There is nothing sinister in this. It is just statecraft.

If one reads LOI 1, the number of drug users at that time was only about 1.7 million. When Duterte became President, that number was estimated to be between 3 to 4 million. If 1.7 million is already considered a national security threat, what then do we call 3 to 4 million? And according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, we actually rank second to El Salvador when it comes to the number of users of amphetamine-type drugs, which includes shabu. That number does not only represent a national security crisis, but an imminent national disaster, if not met with decisive and swift action.

Some of us are disgusted with Duterte’s methods, which rely on shock- and-awe tactics. But any judgment of his method must take into account the situation we are actually in: are we still in a normal situation or an exceptional situation. In other words, are we in a state of normality or in a state of exception?

Why is this important?

If our drug situation still puts us in a state of normality, then our legal order still makes perfect sense. As political theorist Carl Schmitt once put it, “all laws are situational law…and for a legal order to make sense, a normal situation must exist.” If you have one or three people violating a law, that is still within the state of normality. However, if you have millions of people violating a law and a government heavily infested with narco-politicians, can you still call this situation normal? That is already a state of exception.

The state of exception is an essentially political concept. When a political order is in a state of exception, mere law enforcement-as-usual is no longer enough to protect, guarantee, and restore order and protect the population from threats to their security. Coups d’etat, rebellions, lawless violence, invasion, even health crisis are all examples of states of exception.

In each of these instances, the deviation from the normal criminal or health situation is so threatening, they can no longer be dealt with in the same way crimes or health problems are treated under everyday circumstances.

Our drug situation is a full-scale national security crisis, which have been treated in the past administration as if it was still “normal.” But it is not. It is rather a state of exception normalized by the neglect of duty by those who were mandated by law to protect us from national security threats. They did not do everything that was necessary to combat this national security threat. Now, we have a President who rightfully recognized that we are not in a normal situation but in a “state of exception,” and he is acting accordingly, with a mandate from LOI 1 and our Constitution.

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