Towards a return of the death penalty in the Philippines?

28 February 2017

Today, the Philippines Parliament is due to make a decision on a legal text reintroducing the death penalty which the country abolished in 2006. But the populism of President Rodrigo Duterte and his Government runs the risk of facing a number of obstacles, particularly the engagement of Philippine civil society and several binding international treaties.

Another step towards the return of capital punishment in the Philippines: the Chamber of Representatives brought debates to a close last Wednesday after only seven days – a decision which angered abolitionist MPs: of the 25 who asked to have the floor, only seven were given the opportunity to speak. The leader of the majority party in Parliament, Rudy Farinas, justified this decision by explaining that “most MPs have already taken a position and want to vote to reintroduce the death penalty”. Abolitionists denounce an attempt to force the text through and have already stated their desire to obstruct the law by proposing numerous amendments. Although approval by the lower chamber unfortunately remains probable, there is hope that it will be blocked at the Senate. Currently, the 24 senators have demonstrated little support for the return of capital punishment.

President Duterte’s fondness for the death penalty is hardly surprising. Since his election to Davao town hall in 1988, he has presented himself as a leader who is intransigent with regard to all forms of criminality, particularly drug trafficking. When the city was affected by significant security issues, he put in place an extremely repressive zero tolerance policy, his words combining populism and security rhetoric. His record in Davao was far from glorious, contrary to what he frequently asserts. According to data collected by the Philippines National Police Force, the city still leads the country in terms of the number of murders and lies in second place in terms of the number of rapes from 2010 to 2015.

Strengthened nonetheless by impressive popularity, Duerte seems determined to apply the same recipe as Head of State. It is estimated that in the four months since he came to power, at least 3,700 people have been executed outside any legal framework but within the anti-drug trafficking framework. In January 2017, another estimate suggested that 2,000 people had been executed by the police and 5,000 by other militia.

Demonstrations and international law

But the return of capital punishment in the Philippines could prove to be more complicated than foreseen. A significant part of the population looks unfavourable on the hard line taken on security issues initiated by the institutions. On 18 February, approximately 10,000 Catholic demonstrators met in Manila for a March for Life. The Catholic religion is dominant in the archipelago, significant when the current Pope is known for his abolitionist convictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines is already asking its members to raise the death penalty issue on a regular basis and oppose its reintroduction, and numerous priests have integrated this theme into their sermons.

On Saturday 25 February, new demonstrations brought together several thousand people in reaction to the arrest of the opposition Senator Leila De Lima. Once again, the current brutality of the regime was part of the reason why a section of the Philippine people came out onto the streets. For the opposition, Duterte is following dangerously in the footsteps of the dictator Marco who governed the country until 1989. Indeed, the current President recently ordered that the former dictator be buried in the national cemetery reserved for heroes of the nation.

In Parliament, activists dressed in black sat in the public seats to display their indignation while several NGOs set up in the entry hall to raise awareness among MPs.

The potential vote on a law reintroducing the death penalty also raises numerous legal questions. A press release signed by ECPM and eight other organisations explains that “this step would violate the country’s obligations in terms of international law. In 2007, the Philippines ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which formally prohibits executions and commits the country to abolishing this punishment. These obligations cannot be withdrawn at any time.

Read the Joint Statement

The Philippines has also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 6 of which stipulates that “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

These are obstacles which do not seem to make an impression on supporters of a return to capital punishment. If they were to carry the day, we would find ourselves in an unprecedented situation which is difficult to predict…