For want of a nail the pivot was lost
Photo: President Duterte kissing one of the Balangiga bells returned by the United States Government. Some analysts attribute the successful return of the bells to Duterte`s assertive stance towards the US, which for years has denied requests from the Philippines government to return the bells, considered war booty from a bloody battle that left hundreds of Filipinos dead during the Philippines American war at yhe turn of the 20th century

Note: This article was originally published on December 2016.

In this incisive Resurgent exclusive, Oscar G. C. Breva explores the multifarious issues surrounding President Duterte, and hints at prospects for the West of losing yet another chance to get it right.

The contrasting wide grin of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jian Hua and the press briefing of a fumbling U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby on the statement of separation made by Pres. Duterte say it all.  

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The Wall Street Journal’s “Behind Duterte’s Break with the U.S., a Lifetime of Resentment” could not have come at a better time.  To serve as a post mortem on how the US State Department forgot one nail in its “Pivot to Asia” – how not to handle the mercurial and fiercely proud Duterte.

During the elections, Duterte already fumed at U.S. Ambassador Goldberg’s comments on women’s rights (prompted only by an aside reference of the former Davao City Mayor just before he ordered the assault against prisoners who raped and killed a foreign missionary and whose leader he complained he should have wasted a month ago when he had the chance but for President Cory who prevented him).  In an election, Duterte bristled at such brazen interference and made no bones about his dislike of Goldberg.  Even though Sen. Kerry came and offered financial assistance to mollify him, he still called him “gay” and even joked about the U.S. “carrot” they offered him in front of injured soldiers in a government hospital. 
Ambassador Sung Kim, the replacement to Goldberg Pres. Obama nominated last May 2016 after Duterte won, was interpreted by some as an attempt to repair a bridge to the new Philippine president that could no longer be filled by Goldberg.  Yet it took the US Senate only on September 28 to confirm him.  And at the height of the rapport between Duterte and Chinese General Secretary Xi, Goldberg was still ensconced in the US embassy along Roxas Blvd.  Kirby could only speculate that Goldberg was probably in contact with his counterparts at the Department of Foreign Affairs when he knew all along that Sec. Yasay was in fact in Beijing.

The State Department never knew what hit it.  Sources from this agency cited by the Western press who declined to be identified claim that they already toned down their rhetoric on Duterte’s drug war and the public pronouncements of Obama on the subject was in fact the tamest engagement they could muster before Laos.

The Reds have a name for this: carrot and stick—USAid including trade preferences and quotas dangled in front of Third World countries in return for certain positions favourable to American or Western interests such as the so-called “Pivot to Asia”.   

Local politicians in Davao know that Duterte hates this weaseling as one politician compared Duterte to a rival during elections.  “Digong,” when he helps out, will not promise anything.  He just goes to you unannounced and gives you what he can give and will even apologize for the amount that he can fork out.   The other one will promise and promise and deliver at the longest time.  And when he gives, it is as if he gave you a princely sum.

Knowing this game already, Duterte just decided he won’t play at the wrong end.

Human rights is just a part of the negotiation strategy to gain leverage.  Duterte at least knew his international news.  Mexico, the U.S.’ next door neighbour, is waging a campaign as bloody as Duterte’s.  Yet Obama appears to be silent on this.  If online Duterte supporters are right, the U.S. even gave Mexico Sikorsy helicopters to help in its drug war.

A former Aquino top official in a private meeting expressed this concern to an incoming Duterte appointee and common acquaintance of this author during the transition after elections.  Concerned about the statements of the then incoming president about his policy on drugs, he disclosed that hundreds of millions of dollars are tied up to such international obligations such as human rights that stand to be lost if the Philippines could not measure up.

Apparently, “Digong,” because of his war on drugs, is in no mood for “making tawad”.  That is the context of his statement: If I am bad, I might just as well go to China, or even Russia, the three of us against the world.  And he actually said it.  And he has his life to show that he lives by this code.

If the U.S. or the U.N. were really concerned about the Philippine as a nation and ally, was raising the human rights card at all necessary?   What may have blown Duterte’s top was not the lifetime of resentments he was subjected to by the U.S. government as theorized by the WSJ, but by the threat of haling him to the U.N. human rights commission that already extended the basic principle of human rights as would justify the U.N. to call to task an erring nation or its government – genocide and crimes against humanity, to favor criminals.   No longer against genocide or ethnic cleansing per se as it used to be, but to the so-called drug wars of Third World countries whose police and criminal justice systems are woefully inadequate to match the standards set by western countries, faced as they are by a menace that threaten to engulf them.

There is a huge chasm between Pres. Duterte’s war on drugs and the U.N. Commission’s emphasis on human rights in such a war.  While the Philippine president regards the illegal drug industry from the importation, manufacture and sale of the banned substance as a threat to the nation or future generations and a crime in the country’s domestic laws, the U.N. apparently does not think so and is even relaxed about it.  That explains the divide.  U.S. libertarians (read: Democrats) in all likelihood share the U.N. viewpoint so as to use it as a convenient stick.

Here’s what a U.N. paper says about the illegal drug industry and drug users.  You would think the U.N. is under the payroll of drug lords. Consider:

“The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health … has called on UN member states to ‘decriminalize’ or ‘de-penalize possession and use of drugs.”  It has a call that has been echoed by the UN Secretary-General and the heads of UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in the context of HIV/AIDS, and by high profile politicians including many serving and former heads of state in the context of human rights, security and development.” (“The War on Drugs:  Undermining Human Rights”)

The paper concluded:

“The question is rather simple:  If a law or policy cannot achieve its aim, or has proven incapable of doing so over a considerable length of time (in this case 50 years), then can the restrictions on human rights that stem from it ever be proportionate and therefore permissible?”  Then, it ends with an exhortation to governments to explore alternatives – de-criminalization.

Nowhere in the report does it mention any study of the effect on drugs on the users.  Nor is there any attempt to differentiate the kinds of illegal substances and their pernicious effects and what are the segments of the population vulnerable to drugs and what types of drugs.  

The UN Charter does not supplant the sovereign right of nations to enact their own domestic laws against perceived evil in accordance with their own circumstances.

But this frame of reference allows the U.N. Commission to characterize the four million addicts and pushers as a portion of the civilian population entitled to protection from genocide and crimes against humanity even if they are criminals under domestic laws to start with.  To Duterte however, these are faceless criminals that he must scare, outfox, if not interdict, by his unorthodox methods and shadow plays, knowing that the legal system is inadequate and more so, its correctional institutions whose prison guards are as poor as the shabu addicts on the streets.

But all that may be water under the bridge.  Unless Duterte decides he wants to play the game now with him changing the rules, then UN will have its own headache against a “colourful” poster boy at a time when African nations are starting to opt out from the International Court of Justice.