Under Marcos Again, What Lies Ahead for Filipinos


Thirty-six years after Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were overthrown in a “People Power” revolution, the Marcos family is back in power, with Ferdinand Marcos Jr. elected as president (and Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter as his vice-president). While immediate as well as decades-late transitional justice measures helped recover $3 billion in Marcos ill-gotten wealth and fund a reparations program for 11,000 victims of human rights violations, the Marcoses and their cronies have evaded punishment under a judicial system still susceptible to corruption and Marcos family influence.

More importantly, the absence of serious truth-telling measures and sustained memorialization efforts made it easier for the massive Duterte-Marcos disinformation machine to generate popular support for Duterte’s mass-murdering drug war and make millions of voters believe in the Marcoses’ outright falsification of history. But Duterte and Marcos could not have paid for disinformation and historical falsification without the social media corporations including Facebook, Google/YouTube, and TikTok profiting from and enabling them.

Those social media platforms in turn could not have made disinformation and historical falsification work without a susceptible population of poor and even middle-class Filipinos aggrieved by the inequality brought about by neoliberal economic policies that continued from the Marcos dictatorship but without Marcos to blame. These challenges for justice go beyond the Philippines: Can the Marcos family still be held accountable for corruption and human rights violations? Can truth commissions counter historical falsification of this scale? How can memorialization initiatives be designed when disinformation has become so pervasive? Can social media corporations be held accountable for enabling impunity, violating the right to truth, and undermining civil and political rights? How should transitional justice advocates and donors redesign justice and accountability measures in order to respond to the economic and social circumstances of those most vulnerable to disinformation and being misled by historical falsification? 

I offer some tentative answers to these questions below.

Can the Marcoses still be held accountable for corruption and human rights violations? Marcos Jr. has indicated that he will "strengthen" the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), created in 1986 just days after the Marcoses were overthrown and mandated to investigate them for corruption and recover their ill-gotten assets. (I served as PCGG Commissioner from 2001 to 2004, during which time we recovered $680 million in ill-gotten wealth from the Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts, part of which funded the 2013 Marcos victims reparations law that I drafted in 2003). By “strengthen,” Marcos likely means going after those Marcos cronies who have not given the Marcoses what they claim to be their “share” of crony-controlled ill-gotten assets.

As president, Marcos Jr. might try to overturn precedent set by the Supreme Court in 2003 that declared all but $304,000 of their assets as ill-gotten. He might also seek to reverse a final $450 million tax liability judgment on his father’s estate, which cannot be set aside through a mere tax amnesty because the estate’s mostly ill-gotten character. Both of these maneuvers, however, will be extremely difficult to pull off even under a Marcos presidency. The 2003 decision has already been enforced in several ways, from using the recovered assets to provide reparations to Marcos victims to confiscating Imelda Marcos’ jewelry collections. In any case, setting these decisions aside may not be necessary if no one in the Philippine government is willing or able to enforce these judgments without risking retaliation. But even if Philippine tax, asset recovery, and money-laundering institutions under Marcos do not act, victims and activists are not without recourse. They can go after Marcos ill-gotten assets, including missing artwork and foreign bank deposits that are still hidden abroad and use the US human rights judgment to seize those assets. They can even try to invoke the US Global Magnitsky Act and its equivalent in the European Union, Canada, and other global North countries that now allow for banking, travel, and other sanctions on corrupt foreign leaders.

In the United States, Marcos Jr. and his mother still face a $2 billion judgment to pay damages to victims and an accompanying contempt order for evading it. He will invoke diplomatic immunity to travel to the US (as his way of seeking legitimacy in Western eyes), but that will not erase the Marcoses’ liability. He might, however, try to reach a settlement with many victims who are old and sickly. What they will and can extract aside from compensation—such as a personal or even official state apology—will largely depend on US strategic interests, including their assessment of the Marcos family’s historically close political ties with China and the Marcoses’ business relationships with Chinese enterprises.

Imelda Marcos was convicted in 2018 by the anti-corruption court. Her son will ensure that this conviction is reversed on appeal while his mother is still alive. Activists can try to block this attempt at preserving her impunity by doing what they did in 2016 when Duterte decided to bury Marcos Sr. as a hero: use the Supreme Court and the streets of Manila as a venue for truth telling.

Can truth telling about the Marcos dictatorship still be pursued under a Marcos government? One predictable consequence of the return of the Marcoses to power is a state-driven effort to make official the historical falsifications the Marcos family has thus far only been able to spread on social media. But there is also a significant number of Filipinos who not only voted against Marcos Jr. but were mobilized by the promises of his opponent: outgoing Vice-President Leonora Robredo, a human rights lawyer unrelated to any powerful political dynasty and with zero links to corruption. These voters, including many young Filipinos who campaigned for her, might support unofficial truth commissions and even local government-led memorialization initiatives that can anticipate and counter official falsification by the state. Already, activists are talking about building “truth farms” as the alternative to the “troll farms” created by the Marcos-Duterte disinformation network.

A more important step that Filipino activists can explore is partnering with civil society groups in other countries seeking to hold “Big Tech” corporations accountable for systematic violence and other massive harms enabled by their social media platforms—such as the crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Facebook itself is aware that its enabling of disinformation and historical falsification can be characterized as human rights violations. An external “Human Rights Impact Assessment” on the Philippines commissioned by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, before the 2022 elections clearly stated that “disinformation and misinformation on Facebook may contribute to adverse impacts on” on human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, including “[the right to] life and security of person . . . if misinformation contributes to offline harm, [the right to] access to information [and] to political participation, health, [and] freedom from unlawful attacks on one’s honor and reputation.” The same assessment singles out the risk that disinformation on Facebook may enable violations of the right to truth, with an explicit reference to the UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2005/66 recognizing the “right to truth.” These findings help answer the questions about whether truth commissions as originally contemplated by transitional justice proponents can counter the massive scale of online disinformation including on social media and the extent to which this gives rise to corporate accountability.

In her 2016 paper, entitled Crafting a “Right to Truth” in International Law: Converging Mobilizations, Diverging Agendas, Patricia Naftali notes the “plurality of meanings” of “the right to truth” in international law. She points out that these meanings have ranged from how the right to truth is used in transitional justice as part of “an array of responses to State crimes, ranging from prosecutions and truth-seeking mechanisms to the preservation of archives and witness protection programs,” to its use by nongovernmental organizations “specialized in issues of freedom of information and expression, declassification and more transparent democracies [that] advocate for a general free-standing ‘right to truth’ applicable in any context, beyond State crimes.”

When the state, perpetrators of corruption and human rights violations, and the corporations that enable them spread disinformation and historical falsification, it might be argued that the various meanings of “the right to truth” have converged into or at least intersect at one important point: The right to truth is an indispensable foundation upon which a person can make decisions involving his or her entire range of human rights, from the right to vote and participate in government, to the right to life and to a dignified existence, as well as the right to seek justice and accountability when any of those rights are violated.

This intersection between the right to truth and human rights, the violations of which transitional justice mechanisms seek to address and provide remedy for, requires those of us who work in or support the field to reflect on the gaps we have ignored and on emerging violations of the right to truth and accountability for them. It will be important to reexamine the design of truth-seeking mechanisms given the large scale of disinformation and historical falsification in both the global South and North. Should countering disinformation be incorporated into the mandates of short-lived truth commissions staffed mostly by lawyers and social scientists? Or can today’s fact-checkers work with historians, archivists, and social media influencers to design ways to counter disinformation strategically?

It is absolutely necessary to identify the new kinds of perpetrators that ought to be held accountable beyond individual human rights violators or corrupt officials, including the banks, social media platforms, and technology companies that enable and allow those individuals to profit from disinformation. New transitional justice mechanisms may be needed to address political rights violations related to voting and to informed participation in government. The role of entities beyond the boundaries of the countries that suffer the consequences of large-scale corruption and disinformation must be considered.

While transitional justice has evolved to address economic and social rights violations, this evolution must be taken further. It will be important for transitional justice mechanisms, including unofficial ones in the Philippines, to examine how unequal access to technology and education affects the right to truth, the right to vote, and the right to remedies for corruption and human rights violations.

Under a second Marcos as president, what lies ahead are more lies, still meant to falsify history but this time made official and funded by the same taxpayers already once robbed by the Marcoses. Imelda Marcos has said that “perception is real, and the truth is not.” The world must guard against letting her self-serving and corrupt cynicism take hold. Corrupt and abusive families like the Marcoses are happy to prevent the working classes in their countries from acquiring the resources and skills that could help them navigate a technologically complex world—a world where the past is still remembered, the truth can be known, and those who have abused and stolen from them cannot escape accountability.

PHOTO: Bongbong Marco addresses a rally of supporters on March 8, 2022. (patrickroque01/Wikimedia Commons)