Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City, has a novel strategy to address the problem of rice smuggling: murder the suspected smugglers. At a public hearing of the Philippine senate this week, Duterte boasted that if a notorious suspected smuggler tried to do business in Davao, “I will gladly kill him.” 

Duterte’s comments are no laughing matter. Davao’s long-time mayor has a track record of threatening alleged “hoodlums” with deadly violence. Not surprisingly, Duterte’s mayoralty coincided with the operation of “death squads” in the city that have killed hundreds of drug dealers, petty criminals and street children since 1998. In 2001-2002, Duterte would announce the names of “criminals” on local television and radio – and some of those he named would later become death squad victims. No one has been successfully prosecuted for any of these murders. In the meantime, the killings continue.

Duterte’s threat was appalling. But equally disturbing was the lack of condemnation by lawmakers. Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate Food and Agriculture Committee, which held the hearing, expressed sympathy with Duterte’s approach to crime control. “In Mindanao, you have to be tough because if not, there will be several abuses,” Villar said. Senator Grace Poe expressed concern about how children might misconstrue Duterte’s threat, rather than its affront to rule of law.

This tolerance from lawmakers for Duterte speaks volumes about the failure of successive Philippine governments to address the country’s problem of extrajudicial killings. Such killings are down considerably from the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Nonetheless, 12 journalists were killed in 2013, bringing the total number of Filipino journalists and media workers killed to 26 since President Benigno Aquino III took office in June 2010. In only six of those 26  cases have police arrested suspects. Leftist activists, including environmental advocates, have been among those targeted. A much-vaunted initiative by the government to address impunity – the creation in 2012 of a so-called “superbody” to expedite the investigation and prosecution of cases of extrajudicial killings – remained largely inactive in 2013 even as new cases were reported by domestic human rights groups.

Duterte is the embodiment of impunity in the Philippines. Legislators who ignore or, worse, seek to justify his abusive tactics not only insult the victims of such killings and their families, but also undermine efforts to bring them to an end. The Philippines deserves better.