Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte slams critics for ‘weaponizing’ human rights in 1st UN General Assembly speech

Pia Ranada
Duterte slams critics for ‘weaponizing’ human rights in 1st UN General Assembly speech
The embattled Philippine leader attempts to parry concerns over his human rights record by discrediting his critics on the world stage

In his first speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sought to defend his government’s human rights record and discredit critics of his bloody drug war.

Duterte slams critics for ‘weaponizing’ human rights in 1st UN General Assembly speech

Midway into his roughly 20-minute speech aired 1 am Manila time on Wednesday, September 23, Duterte brought up the issue of human rights.

First saying his government vows to protect Filipinos from the “scourge of illegal drugs, criminality, and terrorism,” the Philippine leader quickly called attention to critics of his administration.

“A number of interest groups have weaponized human rights; some well-meaning, others ill-intentioned. They attempt to discredit the functioning institutions and mechanisms of a democratic country and a popularly elected government which in its last two years still enjoys the same widespread approval and support,” said Duterte.

He further accused his critics of pretending to be human rights advocates and spreading “malevolence and anti-government propaganda” even through schools.

“They hide their misdeeds under the blanket of human rights but the blood oozes through,” Duterte went on.

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FULL TEXT: President Duterte’s speech at the 75th UN General Assembly

FULL TEXT: President Duterte’s speech at the 75th UN General Assembly

While he made no mention of specific names, Duterte has time and again accused Leftists and political opponents like the Liberal Party of tarnishing his government’s reputation on the global stage.

Philippine media have not been spared, with Duterte railing against reportage on his campaign against illegal drugs.

Yet UN officials themselves have spoken against his drug war and attacks against the press.

A week before he faced the UN General Assembly, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on his government to stop its violent policies and rhetoric promoting killings.

A report by her office said Duterte’s own threats may have encouraged human rights abuses in the Philippines.

The European Parliament also recently warned the Philippines it could lose tariff perks over the Duterte government’s human rights record.

‘Open dialogue’

Before diplomats and UN leaders, Duterte called for “open dialogue” on human rights issues, provided there be “noninterference” in the decisions of governments.

“To move forward, open dialogue and constructive engagement with the United Nations is the key. But these must be done in full respect of the principles of objectivity, noninterference, non-selectivity, and genuine dialogue,” said Duterte.

The remarks recall his word war with UN rapporteurs in which he vowed to allow their investigations into his drug war provided they agree with his conditions, one of which was a “public debate” with him.

But a year later, Duterte threatened to slap UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard should she push through with her probe.

Throughout his presidency, Duterte has thrown insult after insult at UN officials, even at one point calling its former rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein “empty-headed.”

More than that, the Philippine President has assailed the UN itself, calling it “inutile” and of “no purpose” to mankind for failing to prevent human rights abuses and wars.

In the first year of his presidency, Duterte said he’d “burn down” the UN.

Humanity’s ‘essential organization’

But in his debut on the UN General Assembly stage, Duterte also departed from his harsh words against the international body, even calling it “humanity’s essential organization.’

What appeared to prompt this change in messaging was the COVID-19 pandemic which Duterte said demands “seamless unity” and “complete mutual trust.”

“We cannot bring back the dead but we can spare the living; and we can build back better, healthier and more prosperous and just societies. To this end, we rededicate ourselves to multilateralism,” said Duterte.

The Philippine President even called for the strengthening of the UN through specific measures.

“We need to act on long-standing recommendations to improve the Security Council’s composition and working methods; to strengthen the role of the General Assembly; and to streamline the processes and the operations of the UN,” he said.

Duterte was the 12th head of state to have his remarks aired at the UN General Assembly High-level Debate. With his barong characteristically rolled up, a bespectacled Duterte delivered his speech from the Philippines.

The almost completely virtual summit asked leaders to record their speeches from their countries and send them in days ahead. A representative of their country, physically present at the UN General Assembly Hall in New York City, then gave a short introduction before the speech was aired.

This is the first time Duterte addressed the UN General Assembly. In previous years, he had asked his foreign secretary to deliver remarks on his behalf. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.