On June 30, Rodrigo Duterte concluded his six-year term as president of the Philippines. During his presidency, Duterte was perhaps best known for his vocal scrutiny of human rights, and strict defence of the killings committed as part of his administration’s strategy to combat criminality.

Many of his controversial statements on human rights made headlines across the globe. There is, for example, an infamous speech during a pre-election rally in 2016 where he urged the public to “forget the laws on human rights”, promising that if he made it to the presidential palace he would kill criminals. There is another speech where, in relation to his administration’s war on drugs, he said he does not “care about human rights”, and again another where he said he would be “happy” to go to jail for the killing of human rights activists.

These “anti-human rights discourses” were not mere words. They performed important political work during Duterte’s term, wherein thousands of suspected drug dealers and users were killed in police and vigilante encounters, and scores of human rights defenders endured various forms of harassment.

While Duterte’s anti-rights discourse was met with resistance by human rights organisations in the Philippines, it was also met with overwhelming acceptance by many Filipinos, with polls showing that he sustained high approval ratings throughout his six-year term.

In the wake of Duterte’s departure from office, many questions remain: how did his anti-rights discourses gain widespread acceptance? What lessons can human rights organisations take from this history? Part of answering these questions, I suggest, necessitates a deeper consideration of the emotional appeal of Duterte’s discourses.

Duterte was a known storyteller, who often wove narratives about the drugs crisis with the objective of creating a climate of fear. While this was partly directed towards criminals, who Duterte said he wanted “to scare” into following the law, fear was also directed towards the public. Duterte often heightened existing fears about drug problems among the public and used it to justify his anti-rights agenda.

One emblematic example of this tactic is evident in a section of his speech during a meeting in 2020. Duterte tells a story about an unnamed family, in which the father gets addicted to drugs, and as a result, starts beating up his wife and children. His drug use forces his wife to work to provide for the family, which leads her to being trafficked abroad or relocated to West Asia for work where she may be treated as a “slave”, subject to rape and forced to get abortions. The man’s drug use also leads him to engage in “vices” like drunkenness and robbery. His children, left in his care, turn to drugs themselves.

If this is what can happen in one family, Duterte argues, “multiply it with the …thousands in our midst” and we can see why drugs are a problem. This, he said, “is why I don’t care about human rights” and part of why he orders authorities to kill suspected drug users.

Duterte affectively frames human rights violations against drug users in the form of their killings not as acts of merciless violence, but as a commonsense matter of self-defence against an alleged aggressor. The logic is that he is not attacking anyone, it is drug users who are poisoning society. This works to deflect wrongdoing from Duterte and justify the human rights abuses he enacts.

The story is also moving as it gives a detailed account of the suffering many Filipinos know intimately and have lived, either first-hand or within their networks: addiction, family separation, physical violence, and the abuse of overseas workers. This was something Duterte was commended for by his supporters: his ability to speak about and represent people’s misery with fluency.

Additionally, the story benefits from Duterte’s emotional performance. When Duterte speaks about these social issues, he uses an enraged tone and swears out of frustration. He acts as though the people’s pain is also his pain, and as part of this, is careful not to distance himself from the public by using political jargon or dressing extravagantly. This was welcomed by his supporters, who saw Duterte’s “authenticity” as a sign of reliability.

What all this suggests is that the acceptance of Duterte’s anti-rights discourses hinges largely on his ability to perform them in ways that have emotional appeal among voters. This does not reduce it to “superficiality” – as somehow based on fleeting feelings as opposed to “real” politics. Rather, it brings to light the emotional nature of politics and political nature of emotions.

Rodrigo Duterte a thanksgiving concert for him as he ends his six-year term, in Quirino Grandstand in Manila in June. Credit: Reuters.

The personal everyday

Throughout Duterte’s term, much of the advocacy work of human rights organisations tended to concentrate on criticising his anti-rights agenda and calling on state actors to address it. A substantial amount of work was, for example, focused on demanding that the Duterte administration end its rights violations, and for inter-governmental bodies to condemn Duterte, impose sanctions and launch investigations against him.

These strategies were useful in exposing Duterte’s violence, his breach of international agreements and the necessity for the international community to act upon it. The resulting examinations and investigations by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court reflect the success of their efforts.

But Duterte’s popular appeal highlights the value of conducting human rights work that go beyond lobbying governments and diplomats, and focus more on fostering relationships with communities and individuals who sit at the margins of such realms of power.

It also speaks to the importance of not only criticising Duterte but considering what his emotional appeal reveals about the contemporary landscape human rights organisations operate in, and how this may inform the advocacy strategies they develop in seeking to resonate with this audience.

For example, in one study, human rights advocates reflecting on Duterte’s rule noted that while external factors made it difficult for them to draw public appeal, such as Duterte’s attacks towards them, they may also have alienated people by promoting discourses that presented rights as self-evident truths, used political “jargon” and adopted a “preachy tone”.

In observing Duterte’s appeal, we see that shifting away from these technocratic discourses, which are cold and distant in emotional orientation, may indeed be key. Many people were moved by Duterte’s “authenticity” precisely because they rejected the “inaccessibility of traditional politicians and institutions”, and demanded politics with “popular appeal and emotional identification that cut through technocratic smokescreens”.

Human rights advocacy that speaks to people in a language they can relate to can aid in meeting this demand. While more research is needed to explore what human rights beyond technocracy may look like, the work of artists in highlighting the affective dimensions of rights points to promising directions.

Another reason advocates’ claims may have dissuaded the public from the human rights movement is the tendency for some to promote discourses that stoked “anger and indignation”. This approach aligns with traditional strategies of “naming and shaming” violators, which was prevalent during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr, but was critiqued for concentrating on the negative aspects of rights.

Relatives of drug war victims hold photographs of their loved ones, during a protest to commemorate Rodrigo Duterte's final year in office, in Manila in June 2021. Credit: Reuters

In response, some have called for “positive” or “hope-based messaging” on rights. This aligns with global trends where positive narratives are gaining traction as a strategy against populism. Its aim is not to conceal the negative aspects of rights, but to highlight the hopeful future it can create.

These conversations are promising, yet as can be seen during Duterte’s term, it is worth noting that people were moved not so much because he portrayed the “right” set of emotions – positive vs negative – but what gave his discourses emotional “appeal” was that it spoke to people’s lived experiences.

It may therefore be valuable to focus not so much on finding the “right” emotions, but on translating human rights into the language of emotions. This might mean recognising rights violations not as mere breaches of international agreements, but as harms felt physically and emotionally, as phenomena “bound up with pain, distress and desperation”.

It can also mean measuring the realisation of rights not only in terms of legal accountability, but the fulfilment of human needs and alleviation of suffering. Putting food on the table, having access to education, expressing oneself openly, are human rights in practice.

Translating human rights into the language of emotion, in other words, is about translating it into the language of the personal, everyday and lived in order to open possibilities for more people to see how human rights may resonate with their lives and political visions.

Finally, alongside discourse, work also needs to be done to address the discontentment people expressed towards the exclusionary nature of political systems and structural issues of poverty and insecurity in the Philippines, which gave Duterte’s “man of the people” routine and strong-handed approach to criminality its appeal in the first place. The context signals the importance for human rights organisations to work collectively with a range of allies in addressing these complex issues.

This is a shorter version of an article originally published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.