Duterte’s Hobbesian world
I’M NOT an expert on human rights, but the reports on the UN rapporteurs’ criticism of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte for his statements justifying the killing of “corrupt journalists” strike me as a case of mistranslation. Human rights refer to the inherent dignity of all human beings and their inalienable right to freedom. Furthermore, as the UN declaration says, human rights must be protected by the rule of law, “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression.”
This idea of universal human rights does not, it seems to me, exist in the local-regional world of Duterte. In that world, human rights are abstract impositions by the West that infringe on the sovereignty of nations. They essentially amount to a form of imperialism: the West dictating to the non-West the norms of proper conduct. So it’s not entirely surprising that Duterte, when asked about the UN condemnation of his statements about the killing of journalists, responded with “f-ck you.” His response was a more graphic expression of a position found among other nations—China, the Gulf states, Russia, etc.—that have their own ideas of what and who counts as “human,” and what “rights” are.
Of course, human rights are problematic even in Western countries. In the United States, they are daily violated in the structural violence and unrelenting war against racial and sexual minorities, women, the poor, the disabled, etc. Poverty and gross inequality deprive entire populations of their inalienable rights to dignity and freedom. Indeed, capitalism, to the extent that it treats workers not as humans but as means to an end that is wholly inhuman—profit accumulation—arguably leads to violations of human rights.
Hence the contradiction: the UN rapporteurs lecturing the Philippine president-elect about human rights from a location that historically is responsible for their daily violation in its complicity with the “war on terror,” neoliberalism, and drone warfare, to give a few examples.
But what would happen if we did away with the normative force of human rights? One implication of Duterte’s defiance of the UN is that in place of human rights, he believes in a more elementary notion of justice: revenge. It goes something like this: If you hurt me, I have the right to return the injury. Not only will I respond in kind, I will also do so with interest, just like a gift. If you are a journalist who insulted my mother, then my son, then continues to defame me even after I have done you favors, then I’m entitled to respond with interest. I have the right to kill you. This is, of course, the story of Duterte’s relationship with the murdered broadcaster and anticommunist vigilante, Jun Pala, who had many enemies in Davao.
For Duterte and others like him, justice means revenge. It is about the right to seek satisfaction for an injury, real or imagined, that someone has caused you or those close to you. It entails the restoration of your honor and reputation when these have been damaged (for example, with questions about your health). Publicly exposed and endangered, one’s honor and reputation must be protected, calling for violence as a necessary resort—the exercise of a righteous force that enables me to punish you to the point of taking away your life in order to restore mine.
Such a scenario is possible only when the rule of law has either broken down or is thought to be ineffectual. Every citizen can then become a law unto himself or herself, authorized to kill suspected criminals without due process. Revolutionary and counterrevolutionary justice as class warfare are both steeped in the ethos of vengeance, as one aggrieved class seeks vengeance on its oppressors.
It’s this Hobbesian world that was the Davao of the 1990s—with its Alsa Masa death squads, its New People’s Army sparrow units, its ex-NPA private armies, its rogue military protecting miners and loggers, its drug lords, and its corrupt journalists—that shaped Duterte and that he brings with him to every press conference. It’s a world where human rights are translated into highly particularized notions of honor and revenge where my freedom depends on my right to take yours away.
But what about those who do not share the same notion of honor and the desire for revenge? They are left vulnerable and unsafe. Human rights, as contradictory and hegemonic as they are, remain our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiraling fear and violence they bring forth. Doing so requires that we claim those rights and insist on their protection, not by a strongman or a tatay, but by the laws that we ourselves agree to abide by, however imperfectly and unevenly their enforcement might be. Otherwise, it’s back to Hobbes. Or forward to Stalin.
Vicente L. Rafael ([email protected]) teaches history at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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