RODRIGO Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, gives good copy. Here’s a quote from his final election rally: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.”
And here’s another, from last Sunday, after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime condemned Mr Duterte’s “apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings.”
“I do not want to insult you,” Duterte said. (He only called them “stupid”.) “But maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you are that rude, we might just as well leave. So take us out of your organisation. You have done nothing. Never. Except to criticise.”
What upset Ban Ki-moon and the UNDOC is the fact that Duterte is having people murdered. Since he took office three months ago, some 900 “suspected drug-dealers” have been shot dead by police and civilian vigilantes acting in his name. None was found guilty by a court, and some, of course, were completely innocent.
Duterte is not denying it or apologising. Before he leaves office, he says, he’ll just give himself an amnesty: “Pardon given to Rodrigo Duterte for the crime of multiple murder, signed Rodrigo Duterte.”
“The Punisher”, as he was known when he was mayor of Davao, is very serious about his “war on drugs”: he recently said he would kill his own children if they took drugs. But crime is not the Philippines’ biggest problem, and it’s not clear what else he is serious about.
He talks vaguely about making the Philippines a federal country, but no details of his policies and plans have emerged. In fact, he has spent most of the time since his election down south in his Davao stronghold, not in Manila.
But he does have a plan of sorts for what to do after he walks out of the United Nations. He says he may ask China and African countries to walk out too and form a rival organisation. He doesn’t know much about China or Africa, so maybe he thinks they would like to get together and defy the parts of the world where governments believe that killing people is wrong.
“Duterte Harry” (another nickname) is very popular in the Philippines, but he is not really a threat to global order. The hundred million Filpinos will have to live with him for the next six years, but the United Nations is not doomed. In fact, it is doing better than most people give it credit for.
One proof of this is the fact that the Secretary General now has the right to criticise a member government merely for killing its own citizens. That’s not what it was designed for. When it was created in 1945, as the catastrophe of the Second World War was ending, its main goal was to prevent any more wars like that.
The founders tried to give it the appearance of a broader moral force by signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but that was mainly window-dressing. The UN was created by the great powers to prevent any government from launching another war of international aggression, not to make governments treat their own citizens better.
In fact, each major power was effectively guaranteed the right to do whatever it wanted to its own citizens, so long as it did not attack the neighbours. In this, the new UN was just recognising reality, for every great power was determined to preserve its own “sovereignty”. Even for smaller powers, the great powers could rarely agree on what kind of intervention was desirable, and who should do it.
The UN has done well in its original task: it shares the credit with nuclear weapons for the fact that no great power has fought any other for the past 71 years. It has gradually moved into other areas like peace-keeping and promoting the rule of law in the world, but it never interferes inside the territory of the great powers. Even in smaller countries it almost never intervenes without the invitation of the local government.
So when Duterte called the UN useless because “if you are really true to your mandate, you could have stopped all these wars and killings,” he was talking through his hat. Besides, he would never accept UN intervention in his own country to deal with an alleged crime wave. He’s just talking tough because he hates being criticised.
It’s very unlikely that he will carry out his threat. The UN is the keystone in the structure of international law that, among many other things, deters China from settling its territorial dispute with the Philippines by force. Rodrigo Duterte is just a problem for the Philippines, not for the UN or the world.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries