Duterte Calls for Death Penalty, Hopes Earthquake Strikes Congress in Annual Speech

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives a speech during the Ceremonial Confirmation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law Plebescite Law Canvass Results and Oath-taking of Transition Authority at the Malacanang palace in Manila on February 22, 2019. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his third State of the Nation address Monday night, enthusiastically calling for the restoration of the death penalty and an end to state corrupt while musing aloud about the country needing “blood … to rinse away the dirt.”

The State of the Nation address, an annual speech to both chambers of Congress, is the Philippine analog to America’s State of the Union address. It is an opportunity for the president to tout the achievements of the past year, lay out his policy agenda for the next year, and urge lawmakers to support his administration by enacting laws that advance its goals.

Duterte took the opportunity to urge Congress to pass what many would consider the crowning achievement of Duterte’s tenure, a law once again legalizing the death penalty for “heinous” drug crimes, in particular, large-scale drug trafficking. He explained that he refused to confront China’s illegal colonization of Philippine territory in the South China Sea because he refused to create more “widows and orphans.”

In classic Duterte style, he joked about hoping an earthquake would strike during his speech so it would kill all of Congress, promoted his environmental policy by discussing scantily clad beachgoing women, and said he would be comfortable facing a crimes against humanity tribunal at the International Criminal Court so long as he was allowed “conjugal visits.”

He demanded that the Philippine people be introspective and accept that “the enemy is us”: corrupt public officials, drug criminals, and other societal villains:

I have identified the enemy who dumped us into this quagmire we are in. I have met the enemy face-to-face and sadly, the enemy is “us.” We are our own tormentors – addressing the Filipino people – we are our own demons; we are as rapacious predators preying on the helpless, the weak and the voiceless. We find corruption everywhere in government with every malefactor watching his cohort’s back in blatant disregard of his oath when he assumed public office. Even the language has evolved to soften the wickedness of the criminal act. “For the Boys,” “sponsoring an event,” or what-else-have-you. No amount of euphemism can trivialize or normalize betrayal of public trust or any other criminal offense. It is an injury laced with insult. It is both a national embarrassment and a national shame.

Duterte told his audience that the Philippines needs “self-purgation” of corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials.

“Corruption exasperates. It frustrates. It is also exasperating that there are times when I think that perhaps it is blood that we need to cleanse and rinse away the dirt and the muck that stick to the flesh like leeches,” Duterte mused. “Of course, it is only a thought. I am simply thinking aloud.”

Lest anyone accuse him of calling for violence, Duterte emphasized that he was using “similes, metaphor, hyperbole” to “stress a point.” Yet the signature policy he promoted during the speech was a call for the return of the death penalty, the ultimate use of violence by the state.

In 2016, Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines by promising to eradicate the nation’s pervasive drug problem, exacerbated by the popularity of “shabu,” or methamphetamine. Since then, he has attracted international condemnation for enabling the police to hunt down and kill drug suspects without due process and encouraging vigilante violence against suspected drug users and traffickers. The war on drug crime is tremendously popular domestically, however, as is Duterte, who logged record-high approval ratings in July.

“I am aware that we still have a long way to go in our fight against this social menace. Let [sic] the reason why I advocate the imposition of the death penalty for crimes related to illegal drugs,” Duterte told his audience on Monday. “Our citizens have begun to do their part in the war against drugs … through the barangay [neighborhood] formation of anti-drug councils, and also actually surrendering bricks of cocaine found floating in the sea into our islands. I call this responsibility.”

“I respectfully request Congress to reinstate the death penalty for heinous crimes [applause] related to drugs, as well as plunder,” Duterte said.

The Philippine Congress voted to end capital punishment in 2006 and signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires signatories to abolish the death penalty. Duterte has not discussed how his government would reinstate the death penalty without running afoul of international law.

Senator Manny Pacquiao, a longtime Duterte ally better known internationally as one of the winningest boxing champions in history, is sponsoring legislation to reintroduce the death penalty for drug crimes alongside Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, a freshman lawmaker who spent decades working for Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City.

Duterte lamented in his annual speech that alcohol and smoking should both be eradicated alongside illegal drugs, though he stopped short of calling for government action on that front. As mayor of Davao, however, he restricted smoking in indoor public places because, he said Monday night, “when I was new mayor, I went around to see the discos and night clubs. I could hardly see the faces of the people inside. You have to wade into a thick smoke to just recognize one.”

“We have to stop drinking,” he urged.

Duterte also took the time to make several jokes, as he tends to do in public addresses. In discussing the environmental improvements at some of the Philippines’ most popular beaches, he recommended Philippine men go to the beaches and enjoy the view of “foreigner” women in bikinis sunbathing. He made a “pledge” to support any civilian who slaps an official for attempting to extort them.

On natural disasters, he said, “‘Philippines is so corrupt, it’s so lousy that if you kill all congressmen, senators and the president, we will have a new day.’ So I pray that if the earthquake comes, it comes now,” when all of the nation’s government is in one room.

He also suggested “military training would be good for everybody,” joking that someone would report him to the International Criminal Court for saying so.

“Ah okay. If you can provide me with a good comfortable cell, heated during wintertime … and an air-conditioned during hot weather. And conjugal visits, unlimited,” he would be happy, he said.

Halfway through the speech, Duterte appeared to stun himself with how long he had been talking.

“I’m sorry I have to … I promised you 40 minutes. My God, I … You want me to stop? We can go home now,” the official transcript of his speech reads.

Following the hour-and-a-half-long address, Duterte enjoyed the traditional banquet scheduled for after it. Duterte enjoyed the performance of a full orchestra and sang two songs with them: “Moon River” and the Philippine ballad “Ikaw,” with which he once serenaded President Donald Trump.

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