Human rights advocates: Trump’s silence on Duterte’s drug war ‘dismaying’

Natashya Gutierrez, Jodesz Gavilan

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Human rights advocates: Trump’s silence on Duterte’s drug war ‘dismaying’
'Trump is failing to understand that words have power and failure to speak out could have a lot of symbolic value in terms of how Filipinos view the United States and the Philippine relationship with the United States,' says Kine of Human Rights Watch

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte and US President Donald Trump discussed human rights only briefly during bilateral talks on Monday, November 13, and avoided linking it directly with the Philippine leader’s controversial war on drugs.

Their conversation took place on Monday, November 13, at around 1:30 pm, on the sidelines of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

It was a much-awaited conversation by observers because of the perceived similarities between the two, with Duterte being called the “Trump of the East” in the past. The two are tough-talking, anti-establishment leaders, who are seen to have little regard for rules and protocol.

Their talk came as Duterte faces global criticism from human rights advocates for his controversial drug war, which has claimed thousands of lives. Trump in December said Duterte was doing a “great job” in his drug war.

Phelim Kine, Deputy Director for Asia Human Rights Watch, said he was not completely surprised that the issue was not brought up, considering Trump’s previous actions.

“I would say it’s dismaying but not surprising that President Trump is failing to raise the crucial issue of human rights and the calamitous human rights issues related to the war on drugs,” he told Rappler on November 13.

“It’s not surprising because Trump has a well-documented affinity for strongman leaders who abuse the rights of their people and he has, over the months, expressed and made several references to how he supports what Duterte is doing in the Philippines.”

Wilnor Papa, a human rights officer of Amnesty International Philippines, echoed Kine’s sentiments.

“Although we were pushing for human rights to be part of their agenda, we are really not that hopeful that the Trump administration will grab the opportunity.  They really don’t want to talk about issues that mire both countries. Disappointing but expected from both leaders. What a waste,” he told Rappler.

Ellecer Carlos, spokesperson of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, said Trump’s priority is “long-standing friendship and economic interest.”

“It is clear that Trump needs to maintain his relationship with the Philippines and Duterte. First, Trump has personal economic interest here. He has personal investments here, not just the United States.”

“Essentially, the Philippines is strategically important for the United States in Asia [such as the] assertion of US authority and hegemony in Southeast Asia. They need to keep the Philippines with US than China. That’s the context that’s why he acts like a mediator in the West Philippine Sea dispute. The Philipines is important strategically on the US’ war on terror.”

Wasted opportunity

According to Philippine Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, Duterte himself introduced his controversial drug war as a topic of conversation.

“It was President Duterte who brought up with President Trump the drug menace in the Philippines, and the US President appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter but was merely nodding his head,” said Roque.

He also quoted Trump as telling Duterte, “I have been your friend since I was elected. My predecessor was not your friend.”

Trump was referring to former president Barack Obama who expressed concern about Duterte’s drug war and who the Philippine president called a son of a bitch.

A joint statement released by both countries said they made reference to human rights and the dignity of human life.

“The two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs to promote the welfare of all sectors, including the most vulnerable groups.”

Before Trump’s trip to the Philippines, two American lawmakers wrote Trump, urging him to raise the issue of human rights violations in Duterte’s drug war. Duterte has since said that he will tell Trump – or any other world leader – to “lay off” if he brings up human rights and the drug war.

Duterte also said on Sunday, upon his return from Vietnam, “I’m sure he will not take it up.”

True enough, he did not.

Amnesty International’s Papa said the opportunity was wasted, since ASEAN would have been a powerful force in changing policy.

“Policy-wise, different agencies within the United States have expressed their concerns over the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. However, we would expect the highest official of the land to raise the issue constantly and consistently, epecially in a Summit where calling on the attention of the Philippine government on EJKs, Myanmar on Rohingyas, Malaysia on deaths under custody and freedom of expression, and others could have a huge impact.” 

Bad for business

Kine also pointed out that ironically, Trump’s focus on the economy could’ve been bolstered had the issue been raised.

“I think that the strategic error that President Trump is making is that he is saying that he wants to prioritize economic ties, financial ties, investment ties, and so implicitly he feels that human rights are a potential impediment to those issues. But the fact is, what’s happening in the Philippines under Duterte is that the rule of law is being completely thrown under the bus,” he said.

“And rule of law is this holy trinity of predictability, transparency, and fairness. It goes beyond how the police deals with suspected drug suspects, it also involves all types of issues that are relevant to foreign investors in the Philippines, to American companies doing business.”

He said that because of the drug war, “what is happening in the Philippines is going to have profound implications for how American companies operate in the Philippines.”

“This is something that Trump seems to not register at all.”

Kine also said that the impact could be beyond economic.

Trump’s silence “adds insults to grievous injury to the thousands of victims and their families, to the efforts of Filipinos dedicated to the rule of law and accountability.”

“Trump is failing to understand that words have power and failure to speak out could have a lot of symbolic value in terms of how Filipinos view the United States and the Philippine relationship with the United States.”

‘Rule of law’

US national security adviser HR McMaster, who was present at the bilateral talks, told Rappler last week that “the United States always pushes for human rights.”

Perhaps even McMaster had expected Trump to raise the issue, saying that what Trump “prefers to do is to have a sincere conversation about these issues.”

“As we know here in the United States, drugs is a terrible scourge. But what we also have to understand is that the best way to deal with this kind of a severe problem is through preserving the rule of law,” he said.

“These are conversations that leaders can have in a frank, open, and private manner, I think. It will be helpful to both countries to have that conversation.”

Unfortunately, the conversation did not happen. –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.
Natsu Ando


Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.