Duterte addresses soldiers on 27 May, the day after his "joke" about rape. Photo: Rene B. Lumawag/PA Images. All rights reserved.
On 26 May, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte spoke to troops on the island of Mindanao where he had just imposed martial law in response to Islamist militant activities in the town of Marawi. His comments preemptively absolved troops for committing rape and other human rights abuses. “For this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible. Just do your work. I will handle the rest,” he said. “I will be imprisoned for you. If you rape three [women], I will say that I did it."
Marawi is in the west of Mindanao, in a Muslim-dominant area that has long endured separatist armed conflict. Recent fighting is connected to the emergence of new, extremely violent, jihadist fringe groups. One, the Maute group, formed by brothers who returned radicalised from contract work in the Gulf, kidnapped 200 civilians and occupied a hospital and schools in late May. Whether martial law is a proportionate response is still unclear, although it is striking that fighting is into its third week, indicating surprising tactical capability on the rebel side. In Manila, a brief city-wide lockdown in response to an armed robbery of a casino on 1 June (far from the Mindanao conflict) shows a jumpy country anticipating terrorist attacks and nervous at the possibility, already raised by Duterte, of nationwide martial law.
Protesters call for an to end martial law in Mindanao. Photo: Larry Monserate Piojo/PA Images. All rights reserved.
After President Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, the Philippines endured almost a decade of human rights abuses and suppression of civil liberties. Duterte’s swift imposition of martial law in Mindanao has alarmed many, though apparently it has not yet affected his strikingly high approval ratings which reflect popular support for his exceptionally violent response to the drug trade – with up to 9,000 people summarily-executed, by the police and also swelling numbers of vigilantes, since he took office in 2016.
Duterte's anti-drug campaign targets addicts, particularly users of the cheaply-produced ‘shabu’, or methamphetamine, with extra judicial killings, rather than treatment and rehabilitation. There is a surprising level of tolerance amongst the better-off for this ‘tough on crime’ (or more accurately, this heartless ‘tough on misery’) response.
Respect for this strong-man approach may have muted reactions to the sudden imposition of martial law on Mindanao on 23 May. But Duterte's casual incitement to rape, just a few days later, generated outrage. It has intensified fears that he intends to flaunt human rights in order to achieve stability, much as he did in Davao City, where he was known as the ‘death squad mayor’ before becoming president.
This was also not the first time that Duterte has ‘joked’ about rape. During his presidential campaign, he referenced a 1989 hostage-taking incident in a Davao City jail, in which an Australian lay minister was gang-raped and murdered. Duterte said he ought to have been first in line to rape her, making a shocking connection between political power, terrible violence, and a sense of sexual entitlement.
His recent remarks to soldiers similarly imply that sexual violence is a patriarchal entitlement, but they also put him on damning legal ground should any soldiers take him up on his offer to take responsibility for rape. To repeat, Duterte said: “I will be imprisoned for you. If you rape three [women], I will say that I did it.”
“This is incitement to rape, potentially on a large scale, as part of a counter-terrorism operation"
This is incitement to rape, potentially on a large scale, as part of a counter-terrorism operation. When a commander-in-chief signals to active combat forces that they can commit human rights abuses with impunity, he is putting them and himself in line for international prosecution for war crimes. The Geneva Conventions clearly prohibit targeting of civilians in wartime and yet Duterte’s statement does this. The International Criminal Court's Rome Statute clearly makes sexual violence a war crime, potentially a crime against humanity when committed at scale, and therefore liable for international prosecution.
There are also four United Nations Security Council resolutions making it clear that sexual violence committed to advance military or political objectives (including when it is treated, as perhaps it is in this case, as a form of payment or reward for soldiers) is a war crime that should never be subject to amnesty. These resolutions (for instance resolution 1820 of 2008) make it clear that anyone who commands, or has knowledge of and condones, sexual violence committed by troops in their charge, is responsible and therefore liable for prosecution. Duterte’s comment is an unambiguous expression of command responsibility for the commission of serious crimes.
There is another dimension to the president's callous statement. The three women per soldier whose rapes that he is condoning are likely to be civilians in the Muslim-dominant Marawi area. If the President wants to fan the flames of violent extremism, rather than build reconciliation and peace, there can be no better way than to publicly incite mass rape of Muslim women by the national armed forces.
Indeed, it seems the president had Muslim women specifically in mind. He had said: “If you rape three (women), I will say that I did it. But if you marry four, son of a whore you will be beaten up." This evokes Sharia law provisions permitting polygamous marriages with up to four women – and it could also be taken as an insult by Muslim men and women who are part of the national army too.
Reactions by feminists, international and domestic, to Duterte's comments was swift – though it is striking that no leader of a global human rights institution has yet issued a statement condemning his remarks. Chelsea Clinton immediately tweeted that rape is “Not funny. Ever”, following with another comment: “Duterte is a murderous thug with no regard for human rights. It’s important to keep pointing that out and that rape is never a joke.”
Not funny. Ever. https://t.co/XUIo85noBQ
— Chelsea Clinton (@ChelseaClinton) May 26, 2017
A wide range of women’s rights groups in the Philippines also issued condemnations, including the long-standing Women’s Party (called Gabriela, which is both an NGO and a political party with two seats in congress). A women’s organisation called Tanggol Bayi pointed out that rape had been a feature of detention under the Marcos regime. Evidence of this emerged to an extent never before revealed, in Supreme Court hearings in the Philippines last year. The Every Woman group, formed in defense of Duterte’s February 2017 jailing of feminist Senator Leila de Lima on still unsubstantiated drug trafficking charges, demanded he ‘retract his sick joke’ and immediately clarify the responsibility of security forces to protect civilians.
But Duterte said it was not a joke. On 31 May in a speech to naval officers, he dismissed concerns: “These whores, they hear ‘rape’. Like, like Chelsea, she slammed me. I was not joking, I was being sarcastic.” He went on to make a ‘glass houses’ analogy in response to Clinton: “I will tell her, when your father, the President of the United States, was screwing Lewinsky ... the girl there in White House, how did you feel? Did you slam your father?”
Duterte went on to reveal, however, that he was perfectly aware of the type of violence at issue, and that it departs from individual acts of sexual impropriety or harassment: “It is a crime actually committed by soldiers, mostly Americans in Okinawa.” This shows he understands what conflict-related sexual violence is, though he has failed to acknowledge that sexual violence is something in his power (and duty) to prevent.
“He taps into a similar vein of public contempt for distant elite politicians as Trump does in the US”
Duterte’s profanity and blatant misogyny is considered part of his popular appeal. He taps into a similar vein of public contempt for distant elite politicians as Trump does in the US, where coarse language, crass macho posturing, and dismissal of human rights as liberal luxuries is offered as evidence of ‘authenticity’.
Affinity between the two recently emerged in a leaked transcript of a late April phone call, in which Trump congratulated Duterte on “the unbelievable job on the drug problem.” That is dangerously useful political capital for Duterte – de facto endorsement for giving police and vigilantes free rein to murder suspected drug users.
Trump’s fanboy appreciation of Duterte’s violent methods contrasts with silence from global leaders in reaction to Duterte's rape comments. The new UN Secretary General has not responded, nor has the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who Duterte called an "idiot" last year for recommending an investigation into his personal involvement in extrajudicial killings while mayor of Davao City.
The UN Office of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has also stayed silent, as has the Executive Director of UN Women. Duterte’s well-known and vindictive responses to criticism is doubtless a deterrent; the UN would likely wish to avoid souring relationships with such an important member state, which regularly pays its UN contributions in full. But this is not a good reason to fail to react.
Another explanation for the surprisingly high apparent level of tolerance for these misogynist comments may be the unreliability of Duterte’s words. Like Trump, his inability to resist ad lib side comments and his lack of an ethical filter means that his statements cannot be understood as government policy.
But the words of a national leader have to mean something. It is no defense to say that Duterte is simply channeling what many people really think and feel – even if that were actually true. Duterte’s words can also create an extremely ugly reality should any solder act on his offer to take responsibility for crimes in the anti-terror campaign. And it will be Duterte himself who will face prosecution if that happens.