Philippines-US relations

Duterte, accused of crimes against humanity, to attend Biden’s democracy summit

Sofia Tomacruz
Duterte, accused of crimes against humanity, to attend Biden’s democracy summit

CHIEF EXECUTIVE. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte presides over a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members before his talk to the people at the Arcadia Active Lifestyle Center in Matina, Davao City on December 6, 2021.

PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

President Duterte’s participation in the 'Summit for Democracy' marks the first time the Filipino leader accepts an invite from Washington

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is joining the United States’ “Summit for Democracy” convened by President Joe Biden, a first of its kind gathering where government and civil society leaders will commit to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad. 

Duterte’s attendance comes as he faces an investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he has been accused of crimes against humanity in his bloody drug war and term as Davao City mayor. Weeks before the summit, the ICC announced it would pause its probe to assess the Philippines’ request to defer to the government’s conducting an investigation. 

The Office of the President made the announcement about Duterte’s attendance on Tuesday, December 7. The US hosted virtual summit is scheduled to take place from December 9 to 10. 

“President Duterte…welcomes the opportunity to share the Philippine democratic experience and commitment to democratic values and nation-building” during the summit, Malacañang said.

Duterte’s participation marked the first time he accepted an invite from Washington to attend a summit it will host. Before this, the Chief Executive turned down former US president Donald Trump’s invitation to visit the White House, first extended in 2017 and later again in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Ironically, Duterte had often railed against US lawmakers’ statements criticizing his bloody anti-illegal drug campaign when rejecting Washington’s invitations. 

Throughout his presidency, the President had also often repeatedly rejected the idea of stepping foot in “lousy” America. Recently though he expressed openness to visit the US to show his gratitude for its COVID-19 vaccine donations. 

According to the US State Department, the summit will focus on three themes: “strengthening democracy and countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.”

The December summit – a first of two – will not see Duterte visit the US as a head of state. The second summit, intended to be held in-person, is expected to take place approximately a year after “consultation, coordination, action, and delivery of results.” By this time, a new president would have been elected after the May 2022 polls. 

Why does this matter?

Under Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines has fallen in global democracy rankings with international watchdogs calling out threats to press freedom and human rights defenders that have worsened in recent years. 

Civil space for dissent and opposition had also shrunk further under the pandemic, noted Freedom House, a nonprofit group that specialized in human rights and democracy. 

“In the midst of a heavy-handed lockdown in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, the authorities stepped up harassment and arrests of social media users, including those who criticized the government’s pandemic response,” it said in its annual “Freedom in the World” report. 

Meanwhile, bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US have been strained under Duterte, who repeatedly lashed out at Washington for “interfering” in his controversial drug war. Early on in his presidency, Duterte had fumed against former US president Barack Obama, whom the he once told to “go to hell” after Obama urged him to fight crime “the right way.”

In announcing Duterte’s attendance, Malacañang pointed out that US, in hosting the summit, said it would do so “with humility and in the spirit of mutual learning.” The Philippines is Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy and America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia.

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For these reasons, the Philippines’ invite and participation in Biden’s democracy summit had been questioned by observers. Along with Manila’s presence in the summit, analysts had also questioned the participation of countries like India and Poland, which have also seen democratic backsliding in recent years.

But “The invitation list for Biden’s summit,” Axios observed, “underscores the messy nature of 21st-century democracy and US relations with certain allies and partners.”

“Pakistan, the Philippines, and Ukraine are all flawed democracies with endemic corruption and rule of law abuses. Yet they are important partners of the United States – whether to counterbalance Chinese influence (Philippines), withstand Russian encroachment (Ukraine), or assist with counterterrorism (Pakistan),” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.