The Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines (CHRP) welcomes, in isolation, moves by Western governments and trans-national bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC) to condemn and investigate the repressive, violent regime in the Philippines – especially as that repression ramps up under the latest president, Duterte.
However, our desire for the British government to call for the ending of violent repression in the Philippines, or our desire to see Duterte investigated by the ICC, cannot be viewed apart from the wider politics of these dominant institutions.
British government action, for example, cannot be limited to mere rhetorical action. For the British state to condemn human rights abuses by Global South governments rings hollow when that same state has been involved in some of the most vicious and destructive abuses in recent history. It rings hollow because Britain has been at the forefront of colonialism, the most violent system of dispossession and oppression known to the modern world. It rings hollow because those rhetorical flourishes are combined with the wink-and-the-nod, communicated in the form of arms exports to the very target of the rhetoric.
Most fundamentally, ending Britain’s material and diplomatic support for vicious regimes is at the top of our agenda. We do so not because Britain is too morally pure to be sullied by association with Saudi Arabia or the Philippines – an orientalist exceptionalising of Global South states – but because that is the most effective way we can act in solidarity with movements of liberation in the Philippines and elsewhere. We are acting in concert with the mass movement in the Philippines, against the combined forces of the British and Philippine governments. Because although states are in competition with one another in the international sphere, their cooperation against threats from their own populations is often ensured. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain may compete regionally within the Gulf, for instance, but collaboration quickly ensues when domestic populations begin to challenge either regime. The Dutch and British empires competed internationally, but collaborated vigorously in the 1930s to help undermine their mutual enemy, the Indonesian Communist Party. Our role, as human rights activists in the West, is to work to undermine the ballast of Western support for brutal regimes, in order to open up space for the movements from below.
Similarly, the ICC is heavily compromised by the imperial ordering of world politics. The US refuses to sign up, and even sanctioned a military invasion of the Hague if any US official was hauled before the court. Nearly all active ICC investigations have taken place in Africa; Western abuses appear to hardly register in the ICC’s corridors.
However, this clear double standard does not mean we should reject attempts by the ICC to investigate Duterte. On the contrary, it still offers a potential avenue for heaping pressure on the regime to relinquish its war against drug users, left-wing organisers, and others. The strategic use of the ICC, however – as with the British government – carries significant risks, and requires observers and activists to be vigilant, lest the institution be subsumed under imperial designs.