North Korean threat not a good excuse to invite Duterte to White House, rights group says

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, salutes with Philippine military chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya during departure honors at Manila's International Airport, Philippines on Nov. 9, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Amid severe backlash from human rights advocates and members of Congress, the White House is defending President Donald Trump’s decision Saturday to invite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Washington as a necessary move to shore up alliances against North Korea. But human rights advocates say that excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

Trump invited the Philippines’ strongman president to the White House during a “very friendly conversation” on Saturday, according to a White House statement. In the 10 months since Duterte took office, around 9,000 suspected drug dealers and users – mostly urban poor – have died in extrajudicial killings by police or vigilante citizens carrying out the president’s war on drugs.

Critics fear that Trump’s invitation to Duterte sends a “terrifying message” that rule of law and human rights can be ignored. According to his spokesman, Duterte did indeed receive a message of approval.

“Well, according to the conversation, the president of the United States has already acknowledged the fact that the president is doing a great job considering the weight and the enormity of the conditions in the Philippines,” Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters today, according to local media reports.

“I’m sure he’s aware of all these considerations,” Abella said about Trump regarding concerns for the drug war. “However, from his point of view, it seems like the president of the Philippines is doing a sensible job.”

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended Trump on Sunday saying in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that “there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what’s happening in North Korea.”

North Korea said on Monday that it would continue its nuclear weapons tests to strengthen its program “to a maximum” in the face of U.S. “aggression and hysteria.”

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“[Trump’s invitation to Duterte] doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter,” Priebus said, “but what it does mean is that the issues facing us developing out of North Korea are so serious that we need cooperation at some level with as many partners in the area as we can get to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”

Trump also invited the prime ministers of Thailand and Singapore to the White House over the weekend – two other authoritarian leaders in the region. While those invitations seem to back up Priebus’ explanation, human rights advocates aren’t buying it.

“Implying that the Philippines has any influence whatsoever on North Korea, or that it has anything to offer as part of a diplomatic or military alliance against [North Korea], doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told Humanosphere. “The Philippines is a long-time ally of the U.S., and Pyongyang has surely placed them in the ‘enemy’ category a long time ago.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also released a statement Monday condemning Trump’s “cavalier invitation.”

“This is a man who has boasted publically (sic) about killing his own citizens,” Cardin said. “The United States is unique in the world because our values – respect for human rights, respect for the rule of law – are our interests. Ignoring human rights will not advance U.S. interests in the Philippines or any place else. Just the opposite.”

Cardin also said he will introduce bipartisan legislation with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others later this week to prevent the sale of certain arms to Philippine National Police and to support human rights and civil society organizations. The bill, he said, will “make it clear to President Duterte that there will be consequences for his barbaric actions.”

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Although some have praised Duterte for economic policies to reduce poverty, recent reports accuse him of systematically killing the urban poor in the name of ridding the country of drugs. He has repeatedly defended and expanded the “war,” and threatened to cut ties with the U.S. when former President Barack Obama criticized it. But Duterte, known for his crude choice of words and slurs against global leaders, has been more open to working with Trump, because they “talk in the same language.”

However, Duterte is just the kind of person Congress recently authorized the president to sanction for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” under the Global Magnitsky Act.

“If Duterte were not immune as head of state, he would likely be barred from admission into the United States,” Robertson said. “In fact, it’s worth considering whether Duterte would actually fit the profile of a ‘criminal alien’ of the sort that Trump has been fear mongering about and the Department of Homeland Security has been busily working up regulations to bar from the country.”

Robertson added that by not fulfilling the United States’ obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte’s drug war, Trump is “effectively endorsing” it and has “made himself morally complicit in future killings.”

“It appears that the new trend in Trump foreign policy is that if you don’t have a good excuse, blame it on North Korea,” he said.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.