BOGOTÁ — Any Colombian observing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs might remember our former president César Gaviria.

Gaviria, who governed in some of the worst days of our drug violence, is a lightweight compared to Duterte. The highly popular Filipino leader has no qualms about employing language that few presidents would use. He used expletives in describing former U.S. president, Barack Obama, and has said some nasty stuff about the Pope too. It's nice to see our Colombian leaders outdone in brutality for a change.

In spite of my animosity toward Gaviria's administration, I cannot place him on the same level as Duterte and his program. Gaviria's war on drugs did not include a brazen call to physically eliminate drug users and small-time dealers as Duterte did in his campaign — with frightening results. Amnesty International estimates there are more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings a month in the Philippines.

Inevitably, when you give state agencies carte blanche to kill over and above the established, official targets (which is horrible enough), opportunistic violence proliferates. Recently Filipino police kidnapped, tortured and killed a Korean businessman; policemen had apparently sought to involve him in drug dealing in order to extort money from him.

César Gaviria in Mexico, in 2015 — Photo: Ivan Stephens/El Universal/ZUMA

There is another way to view this. The Philippines has a different culture to Colombia and half its GDP per person. It has suffered lengthy periods of internal fighting and faces two significant insurgencies: one of Maoist guerrilla groups and the other Islamist (or an amalgam of radical Islamist groups). The government is talking to both.

Earlier this year when Duterte began formal dialogue with the Maoists, the first point of discussion was farming and land, much like in Colombia. But Duterte was prepared to take his reformist agenda much further than his Colombian counterparts have in their wildest moments of generosity. In the Philippines, the government is considering a rearrangement of the countryside as a key component of long-term national growth.

This suggests that the affairs of distant countries may not be as different as they seem from afar. Peacemaking does not need a dogmatic outlook but it needs basic understanding. This goes further in resolving, or at least improving the solutions to, our problems.

The sociologist Tzvetan Todorov, who recently died in Paris, understood this. He rejected the now prevalent idea that anything attractive must be right and true. For Todorov, heroes are not people who sacrifice their lives but those who can recover other people's fragile, passing humanity. I couldn't agree more.

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