top of page
  • Deanna Wilken and Sarah Kane

The Philippines Presidential Election is Critical for Human Rights

Author: Deanna Wilken

Contributor: Sarah Kane

May 4, 2022


On May 9th, the Philippines will be voting for their new leader. While this would be considered a critical time for any country, this particular election is paramount in determining the future state of human rights within the Philippines. Over the course of President Rodrigo Duterte’s reign from 2016 to present, human rights abuses have increased substantially, including enforced disappearances, murders, and arbitrary detentions. The next president must end the abuses and begin reparations by supporting the surviving individuals and their families in recovering from the physical and psychological damage.

President Rodrigo Duterte: A History

Current Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte started his political career in 1988 as mayor of Davao City in southern Philippines. Davao was known as “murder city” and Duterte ran on a campaign of harsh punishment for criminals. Once elected to the position, suspected criminals were "executed by police or gunned down by plainclothes assassins riding on motorcycles” by Duterte’s Death Squad. His brutal tactics in Davao continued until his departure to Mindanao, the capital of the Philippines, to assume the presidency.

President Duterte won the presidency in May 2016 on an anti-drug campaign, proclaiming he would severely punish all drug dealers and users. Human rights groups cautioned that Duterte could now use his previous policies in Davao throughout the Philippines, indiscriminately killing those associated with drug use or dealing. During the first two years of his presidency alone, a reported 4,665 people were killed by government forces and unidentified assailants as part of the anti-drug campaign, although the Philippines Commission on Human Rights and a Reuter’s investigative report allege the number could be even higher.

In addition to the reported deaths, many activists and political opponents were targeted by the Duterte administration. Senator Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of President Duterte, was arrested for allegedly running a drug trafficking ring during her tenure as Justice Secretary from 2010 to 2015. Duterte’s opponent, Senator Antonio Trillanes, was also arrested on charges of rebellion. United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was placed on a terrorist list.

President Duterte’s actions during the war on drugs led to numerous attempts at investigation by international bodies and governments including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and United Nations (UN). The ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced a preliminary investigation in February 2018, resulting in Duterte’s withdrawal from the ICC the following month. The UN made another attempt in June 2019, then began independent investigations after Duterte’s refusal to cooperate.

In June 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a comprehensive 26-page report examining nearly 900 submissions from human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, and the Duterte administration regarding the situation of human rights in the Philippines. In 2021, human rights experts reissued their call to establish an independent, impartial investigation into human rights violations under the Duterte administration. Reports about the impact of Covid-19 on human rights abuses in the Philippines stated that the pandemic had worsened the situation. Extended police powers heightened the use of harsh and brutal punishments.

President Duterte and his administration set the foundation for grave human rights violations to continue. Thus, the results of the presidential elections on May 9th are critical to the future of rights and protections in the Philippines.

Presidential Opponents

With less than a week left before the elections, the sense of urgency for change is increasing rapidly, and although ten individuals are running for office, only two are leading. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Maria Leonor "Leni" Gerona Robredo are longtime opponents speaking from two very different platforms. Marcos Jr. represents a return to and continuation of a dark history in the Philippines, while Robredo is the image of hope and good governance.

Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. [Image Source: File photo/EPA]

Marcos Jr. is the son of former ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His father left a legacy filled with human rights abuses that ravaged and traumatized the Philippines during his rule. Despite this, Marcos Jr. refuses to recognize or apologize for his father’s 20-year brutal campaign which saw “warrantless arrests of 70,000 people, the deaths of nearly 4,000, the stifling of free speech and the persecution of political rivals.” Disinformation intended to restore the Marcos family’s reputation and discredit Robredo has been rampant, particularly on social media. Running alongside Marcos Jr. as vice president is President Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio, although the position is voted on separately. Duterte-Carpio’s alignment with Marcos Jr. has bolstered his chances of winning the election. Should both candidates be elected to office, there will be serious concerns about the already deteriorating human rights conditions in the country.

Leni Robredo [Image Source: Republic of the Philippines - Office of the Vice President]

Leni Robredo is the current vice president incumbent and narrowly defeated Marcos Jr. in the vice-presidential elections in 2016. Robredo is party leader of the Liberal Party of the Philippines, running as an independent in this election. To her supporters, she is a symbol for the people as a politician who can truly provide good and corruption-free governance. Her legacy is humble and she campaigns on social justice, with many of her accomplishments focused on helping marginalized people.


The contrast between the two frontrunners is considerable. Robredo offers the Philippines a chance at recovery and a promising future. Marcos Jr. may lead the country down the same path of political turmoil as his father and current President Duterte. In a survey conducted by Pulse Asia Research Inc. on May 2nd, Marcos Jr. is polling at 56% compared to Robredo’s 23%. The urgency is greater than ever. If Marcos Jr. wins the election on Monday and Sara Duterte-Carpio the vice presidential office, the Philippines will face darkness not felt since the end of Ferdinand Marcos’s reign in 1986.


bottom of page