Yellow Pad

Rodrigo Duterte’s 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA) addressed a lot of issues. And depending on your values, beliefs and advocacy, one would either slam Duterte or begrudgingly recognize parts of his reform agenda.
But it is not merely a question of counting what is good and what is bad in the President’s address. Duterte outlined his reform agenda: The Bangsamoro Organic Law, Universal Health Care (UHC), rationalization of fiscal incentives, increase in sin taxes, east of doing business Act, land use, and telecommunication liberalization. These are good reforms.
But we all have a ranking of preferences regarding the many issues we face. Some give attention to social reforms like health; others keep an eye on economic measures. And yes, the progressives are for the defense and assertion of human rights.
One, depending on her ranking of preferences, will give a much bigger weight to a particular concern, say human rights. Hence, even if the person supports the other measures, she would in the main oppose Mr. Duterte because of his bad human rights record.
Those who believe in the universality of human rights lambasted Mr. Duterte for his statement that “the illegal drugs war will not be sidelined. Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling…as on the day it began.” He even emphasized his disdain for human rights, saying that “Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives.”
To be sure, as many have pointed out, human rights and human lives are one. To quote Vice-President Leni Robredo: “We fight for human rights precisely because we value human lives.”
Hence, Mr. Duterte’s statement is a false dichotomy. Perhaps, Mr. Duterte was trying to make a nuanced statement, similar, for example, to how the former US President Barack Obama tried to justify the drone war to prevent terrorists from killing civilians. The US drone war is about targeted killing and signature strikes, even hitting innocent civilians. It’s a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Or perhaps, Duterte was following Deng Xiao Ping, who ordered a bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen student protesters in 1989. Deng’s calculation was that the spread of the protests would have rolled back the post-Mao Zedong reforms and ignited a civil war.
To be sure, the Obama and Deng examples were gross violations of human rights. But Obama and Deng and many other leaders are Machiavellian, cold-blooded and calculating, employing cost-benefit calculation, these leaders set aside moral considerations as they employ violent means to prevent huge or immeasurable losses for society.
The problem with Duterte’s reasoning is that even from an amoral “cost-benefit” calculation, he is wrong. Users of drugs are harmless people, and they do not constitute a threat, immediate or long term, to the peace and stability of the country. What is now recognized all over the world is that the drug problem is best addressed through a harm reduction approach.
The 2018 SONA gives as an insight into how people rank and weigh their issues. I am confident that our people support human rights. But many do not rank human rights a top priority.
It reminds me of a former US ambassador to China, Winston Lord, who rejected the reasoning of Deng to suppress the Tiananmen protesters. He harshly condemned China’s violation of human rights.
But ultimately, he said, “Human rights, as important as it is, cannot dominate our agenda.”
Sadly, this is likewise the outlook of many foreign governments and even the majority of our people towards Duterte.
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.