Comparing himself to Hitler, Philippines President Duterte draws rebukes

In remarks on Friday, President Duterte likened his war on drugs to Hitler’s crimes against Jews, drawing strong criticism abroad. At home, however, many Filipinos support his harsh tactics.

Bullit Marquez/AP/File
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures with a fist bump during his visit to the Philippine Army's Camp Mateo Capinpin at Tanay township, Rizal province east of Manila, Philippines, on Aug. 25, 2016.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte cited a startling comparison Friday when he said he was “portrayed or pictured to be a cousin of Hitler.”

The president of the Philippines, who had recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, where he discussed ways of fighting crime internationally, made a link between the murder of Jews under the Nazis and his own violent drug war. Referring to the 6 million Jews estimated to have been killed before and during the Second World War, he said, “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews ... there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

The remarks have drawn a strong response abroad, sparked by concerns about Mr. Duterte’s glorification of the Holocaust. But they may be what Filipinos want to hear.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, called for Duterte to retract the remarks.

“Drug abuse is a serious issue. But what President Duterte said is not only profoundly inhumane, but it demonstrates an appalling disrespect for human life that is truly heartbreaking for the democratically elected leader of a great country,” he said in a statement.

There can be no comparison with the “unique atrocities of the Shoah and Holocaust,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said. Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said that, today, Hitler would be accused of crimes against humanity, and suggested that Duterte would likely end up at the International Court of Justice if he continued on this path.

But Duterte's harsh tactics may actually help him domestically. Some analysts say that Filipinos are nostalgic for the days of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and hope to see the same strongman attitude from Duterte.

And outspokenness on drug crime has been the centerpiece of his political platform. During the presidential campaign, Duterte promised to end crime within six months of taking office, an approach that is considered responsible for his landslide election victory in May. He has since asked for another six months to finish the job.

In some ways, Duterte's violent approach seems to be having the desired effect: Drug crimes dropped 75 percent after he became mayor of Davao, according to city spokesman Leo Villareal, as The Christian Science Monitor reported from Davao in June. Mr. Villareal said other forms of crime – muggings, incidences of pickpocketing, and violent political crime – are also rare.

The same trend is now appearing on a national scale. In the case of drugs, more than 3,000 suspected dealers and users have been killed, and nearly 700,000 more have surrendered.

For many Filipinos, the killings are “a necessary evil in the pursuit of his agenda,” Anni Piiparinen, a specialist on Southeast Asian security and assistant director of the cyber statecraft initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The Christian Science Monitor’s David Iaconangelo in August. It’s a tradeoff Filipinos, "very weary of high crime rates," are largely willing to make, she said. 

That’s borne out in Duterte’s poll numbers – the president had a 91 percent trust rating in July. 

Duterte has been critical of international voices concerned about human rights abuses. On Friday, he said European countries were hypocritical for worrying about potential drug dealers and users in the Philippines while not doing enough to help migrants fleeing Syria.

Though Duterte says the victims of his attacks are “all criminals,” he may be targeting innocent people. Poor Filipinos are rarely able to defend themselves against charges brought against them.

The majority of the victims of Duterte’s drug crackdown are “not the wealthy and powerful drug lords who actually have meaningful control over supply of drugs on the streets in the Philippines,” Phelim Kine, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told The New York Times.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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