Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not officially accepted President Trump’s offer to visit the White House, the prospect of it quickly set off alarm bells among critics, including an international human rights group that advocates a U.N. investigation of the Filipino leader’s administration.
Signaling what's perhaps a warming relationship between their two countries, Trump invited the controversial leader of the Philippines to the United States during what the White House described as “a very friendly conversation” Saturday. Duterte told reporters Monday that he cannot promise he will accept the invitation, citing his busy schedule.
But Human Rights Watch said that Trump should instead join critics in condemning Duterte’s war on drugs, which has resulted in the deaths of countless Filipinos, many of them poor. Thousands have been killed by police and vigilantes since Duterte took office almost a year ago and vowed to eradicate the Philippines’ massive drug problem.
“Countries with bilateral ties to the Philippines, particularly the United States, have an obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte’s abusive drug war, rather than offer to roll out the red carpet for official state visits by its mastermind,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Kine told the Associated Press that Trump has to carefully weigh the implications of a Duterte visit, adding that the Filipino leader’s links to “possible crime against humanity” have prompted warnings from the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands.
The deaths, however, did not appear to be part of the phone conversation between Trump and Duterte, who have been compared to each other because of their fiery rhetoric. According to the White House’s readout of the call, the two leaders talked about the escalating threat from North Korea and “the fact that the Philippine government is fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs.”
Trump, in the past, also has praised Duterte’s drug war.
In a brief phone call in December about the drug war, then-President-elect Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the “right way,” according to the Philippine president's account of the conversation.
John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director, said that “speaking glowingly” of a president who has bragged about the deaths of his own citizens while remaining silent about concerns over human rights violations sends a “terrifying message.”
“It says to the world that illegal violence is legitimate and that the rule of law and human rights can be ignored,” Sifton said. “This is a message in the language of thugs and criminals, not government servants who take an oath to protect their citizens and laws.”
Harry Kazianis, an Asia security specialist at the Center for the National Interest, said the Trump administration has to balance concerns about human rights and domestic challenges in the Philippines against U.S. foreign policy and strategic priorities in Asia. The Philippines has been in a longstanding territorial dispute with China over a group of islands in the South China Sea.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus defended Trump's praise of Duterte on Sunday, saying the president's top priority is addressing the threat of North Korea and partnering with countries in Southeast Asia.
“The issue on the table is North Korea, and there is nothing right now facing this country and facing the region that is a bigger threat than what's happening in North Korea,” Priebus said on ABC News's “This Week” on Sunday morning. “And if we don't have all of our folks together — whether they're good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn't matter, we've got to be on the same page.”
ABC's Jonathan Karl repeatedly pressed Priebus on Duterte's “abysmal human rights record,” asking how Trump could praise a leader accused of mass killings. Priebus would not say whether the issue came up in the call, saying he didn't hear the entire conversation.
“We obviously want to encourage him to do better, but this call, the purpose of the call, is all about North Korea,” Priebus said.
At one point, Karl asked, “Does that mean that human rights don't matter now?”
“Absolutely not,” Priebus responded. “It doesn't mean that human rights don't matter, 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.”
Priebus added that human rights are “very high at the top of the list” of the president's priorities, citing Trump's decision to attack an airfield in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.
Robespierre Bolivar, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, told reporters that if Duterte accepts Trump’s offer, he may visit soon because of the urgency of the threat over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to the AP. The United States wants to consult with its allies in Asia on how to deal with the tensions in North Korea, Bolivar said.
Duterte has implored the United States to show restraint and patience in dealing with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and warned against an aggressive approach.
“I'm sure President Trump by now is cautioning his military to just maybe hang on there and not to start something which they cannot control,” Duterte said in a statement. “Everybody's worried. Nobody's clapping his hand. And I'm sure that if war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula, the imponderables of life is really, you cannot foresee, even project what will happen.”
In a news conference before the call Saturday, Duterte said he would urge Trump to ensure that war is avoided. Otherwise, “my region will suffer immensely,” according to the AP.
“It behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to be prudent and patient,” Duterte said. “We know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything.”
Whether Trump will take his ally's advice remains unclear.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Trump said he prefers a diplomatic approach to settle mounting friction over North Korea's nuclear program but warned that a conflict is possible.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump said. “We'd love to solve things diplomatically, but it's very difficult.”
The relationship between the United States and the Philippines soured under President Barack Obama, who criticized Duterte's drug war. Not one to take criticism lightly, Duterte snapped at Obama on a few occasions, telling him to “go to hell” and, at one point, using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a b----” or “son of a whore” when talking about the then-U.S. president. In September, Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte, whom he called a “colorful guy.”
But with Trump at the helm, the relationship between the two countries seems to be shifting.
The White House said it “is now heading in a very positive direction” and that Trump is looking forward to visiting the Philippines during the East Asia and U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summits in November.
Bayan, a left-wing organization in the Philippines, is urging Duterte to not accept Trump’s invitation. Renato Reyes, the group’s secretary general, told the AP that he does not believe the Philippines has much to gain from the visit other than “an interesting photo op.” Bayan has said it will lead a protest during Trump’s visit.
The Trump Organization has a licensing deal with Century Properties, which owns Trump Tower at Century City, a 250-unit luxury apartment building that opened last year in Makati City in Manila. Century Properties is led by Jose E.B. Antonio, whom Duterte appointed last fall as his economic envoy to the United States. The company told ProPublica that Antonio will be a liaison between U.S. and Philippine companies and that the position is a “non-government paid, non-policy making role.”
Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.