By David Borden
Earlier this week, US President Donald Trump and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte met for the first time, during the ASEAN Summit in Manila which Duterte hosted. As predicted, Trump did not raise human rights during their meeting, although a White House spokesperson claimed it came up “briefly” during a private discussion.
The top human rights issue Trump might have brought up with Duterte is the campaign of drug war killings that Duterte promised during his presidential campaign, and which he has followed through on since taking office in June last year. Human rights organizations and media have given estimates ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 killed already.
In a sign-on statement I organized, which has been endorsed by nearly 300 NGOs and prominent individuals and which we released this week in advance of the Trump-Duterte meeting,we note that the Philippine National Police (PNP) acknowledge over 3,900 people have been killed in anti-drug operations under the Duterte administration, plus nearly 2,300 more drug-related murders and thousands still “unexplained.” Our statement also notes the Philippines saw a roughly 50% increase in its official homicide rate, starting immediately when Duterte took office – hard to explain in the absence of an official policy of extrajudicial killing.
The statement was covered in articles on four important Philippines news outlets, including the Inquirer, Rappler (8thand 12th most read web sites in the Philippines respectively), the Philippine Star and InterAksyon. The Interaksyon article credited our coalition with renewing global calls for a UN-led probe into the drug war killings. Leading human rights organizations in the Philippines, Filipino American groups, top NGOs like NOW and Doctors of the World, and many others supported the statement. More than 50 of the NGOs endorsing it are based in Asia, including groups from a majority of the ASEAN states.
Should Trump have met individually with Duterte, and should he have pressed Duterte on human rights when he did? World leaders need to communicate with each other, and there’s room for debate as to how best a US president should juggle competing interests. Unfortunately, Trump’s silence on human rights during ASEAN leaves standing some incredibly harmful statements he has made on the matter in the past:
- In December Trump and Duterte spoke on the phone, and Duterte claimed Trump praised his drug policies. While Duterte could have made that up, the Trump team never rebutted the claim.
- After Trump and Duterte spoke again in April, a statement on the White House web site said they discussed ” fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs,” with no qualification of that statement, implicit praise for Duterte’s policies.
- A transcript of the April conversation leaked to Rappler quotes Trump congratulating Duterte for doing an “‘unbelievable job’ in the war on drugs.”
We will never know for sure if Trump’s implicit greenlighting of Duterte’s mass killing campaign led to more such killings, but it’s possible. Clearly the president of Indonesia, who launched his own drug war mass murder campaign as part of a reelection strategy in August, must have taken note.
If the president won’t lead on human rights, or even arguably helps to make things worse, then Congress should step in. That’s why we are supporting S. 1055, “The Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017,” bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Although not perfect, S. 1055 would impose important human rights conditions on law enforcement assistance to the Philippines, and would fund positive health programs as well as the work of Philippine human rights defenders. Among the bill’s supporters are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the iDEFEND human rights coalition in the Philippines, the Filipino American Human Rights Alliance, US Filipinos for Good Governance, and our close partners the Drug Policy Alliance.
Along with sending you this update, I also have the following three requests:
- If you are a US voter, please write to Congress in support of S. 1055, using the online write-to-Congress formwe’ve set up. Please follow up on your email by calling your state’s two Senators and your Representative. (But please do use the form too – this will enable us to contact you if you live in a key state or district.) The time to do this is now, because we are trying to influence the pending State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, over the next few weeks.
- Please help to publicize our statement and S. 1055. You can use the set of sample social posts we’ve prepared for Facebook and Twitter, copied below my signature. You can also go straight to our Twitter page, @stopthedrugwar, where we have already retweeted some of these as posted by others. We’ll be posting more to Twitter and to our Facebook group later as well.
- We need your financial support for this effort, and for other work like publishing the Drug War Chroniclenewsletter, a key tool for advocates and many others in the issue. Tax-deductible donations to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation, will support work like the Philippines statement and the newsletter. Non-deductible donations to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Drug Reform Coordination Network, will support our legislative work directly supporting S. 1055, and other legislative matters in the US. If you would like to designate a gift for a specific program, please leave a note in the comment box on our donation form, or with your check if donating by mail. Links to both nonprofits’ donation forms can be found at http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate, and our mailing address is P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016.
Thank you for helping and for your time reading this update. As we noted in the closing paragraphs of our Philippines statement, “Support for the global system of responsibilities and rights has become uncertain… lawlessness and extrajudicial violence must not become a model for more countries. When human rights are attacked, all are called on to act… The time for action is now.”
David Borden, Executive Director