MANILA, Philippines – A U.S.-based human rights group says President Donald Trump should not roll out the White House red carpet for Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, whom it accused of being a “mastermind” of mass murder because of his anti-drug crackdown in which thousands have died.
Human Rights Watch and other critics reacted with alarm and outrage Monday at Trump’s invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. In a telephone call, Trump also affirmed America’s alliance and friendship with the Philippines and its president, who has maintained an antagonistic stance toward U.S. security policies.
The U.S. and other countries close to the Philippines “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 with its mastermind,” said Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.
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Kine said Trump may be taking actions that damage human rights by making overly friendly overtures to Duterte, who is facing a complaint for alleged mass murder before the International Criminal Court.
“Trump should recognize that he has cut a bad deal for the people of both the United States and the Philippines if he rolls out the red carpet for a Duterte visit without carefully weighing the implications of hosting and toasting a foreign leader whose links to possible crimes against humanity for instigating and inciting extrajudicial killings has already prompted warnings from the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court,” he said in an email.
Duterte has said his administration does not back extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death and violence in nationally televised speeches. Duterte’s spokesman, Ernie Abella, did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said Duterte has not yet responded to Trump’s invitation. If Duterte accepts, the trip may occur soon because of its urgent topic, department spokesman Robespierre Bolivar told reporters.
“The U.S. apparently wants to consult allies and strategic partners in Asia to discuss an approach to the tensions over DPRK,” Bolivar said, using the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Abella said in a statement that “the discussion that transpired between the presidents was warm, with President Trump expressing his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially on the matter of dangerous drugs.”
A White House statement described the call as “very friendly” and said the U.S.-Philippine alliance “is now heading in a very positive direction.”
Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said friendlier ties are needed, even with concerns about Duterte’s human rights record, citing the North Korean threat.
“The purpose of this call is all about North Korea,” Priebus told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “It doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter.”
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Duterte suggested in a news conference Saturday that the Trump administration should back away from its intensifying standoff with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs to avoid risking a nuclear holocaust that could smother Asia.
“It would be good for America to just restrain a little bit and if I were President Trump, I’ll just back out, not really in surrender and retreat, but just to let the guy realize that, ‘Ah, please do not do it,”’ Duterte said.
Washington, he said, should not play into provocations by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It behooves upon America, who wields the biggest stick, just to really be prudent and patient. We know that we are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of his missiles and everything,” Duterte said.