POSTSCRIPT / July 16, 2019 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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US backing Duterte in his war on drugs?

ON WHOSE side is the United States, specifically President Trump, in the international human rights imbroglio that President Duterte has gotten the Philippines into with his bloody war on illegal drugs?

While China voted July 11 with the Philippines on the Iceland resolution at the UN Human Rights Council calling for a review of extrajudicial killings pinned on the Duterte administration, the US (no longer an HRC member) did not participate. The resolution passed on an 18-14 vote.

Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. denounced the human rights body as a kangaroo court. Recall, in contrast, how ecstatic he was when the United Nations General Assembly elected the Philippines as a new UNHRC member on Oct. 12, 2018.

The US appears to view human rights from a political angle. It left the HRC in June 2018 (with Iceland replacing it) because of what it perceived as a bias against its ally Israel and a willingness to allow human rights abusers as members.

But Trump may soon have to declare where he stands on alleged violations of human rights in the Philippines, particularly on the extrajudicial killings associated with Duterte’s drug war that has taken between 25,000 and 70,000 lives (depending on who does the counting).

In 2016, the Washington Post reported: “In a statement Saturday (Dec. 3), Duterte shared details of a seven-minute conversation that took place Friday. He said that Trump endorsed his campaign against drug users and dealers — a campaign that has left at least 4,500 Filipinos dead in about five months. Trump told Duterte that he was doing it the ‘right way,’ according to Duterte’s account.”

Reporting on the same congratulatory call, Reuters said that Trump invited Duterte to the White House, quoting an unnamed Philippine official.

Trump’s camp, however, did not confirm the claimed endorsement and invitation. It simply said: “President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of the Philippines offered his congratulatory wishes to President-elect Trump. In their conversation, they noted the long history of friendship and cooperation between the two nations, and agreed that the two governments would continue to work together closely on matters of shared interest and concern.”

Now, the big question is if Trump, eyeing reelection in November next year, will stand by Duterte and his controversial drug war whose review, which is an implied rebuke, is being pressed by the UNHRC.

On the US state visit of Duterte, it looks more like a matter of when than if. Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez told reporters during the July 4 celebration of Philippine-American Friendship Day that the President will visit Washington before his term ends in 2022.

As we see it, rushing a visit this year will be difficult. So it may have to wait for an opening between the spring and autumn of 2021 (after President Trump’s likely reelection on Nov. 3, 2020) — the US weather and the 74-year-old Duterte’s fragile health permitting.

We expect the White House to be careful about welcoming Duterte in 2020, an election year, as the controversial Philippine leader could bring a fallout of human rights issues that might harm Trump’s reelection bid.

Human rights advocate groups and the strongman’s detractors in the US, especially on the West Coast, are reportedly itching to hound Duterte and dramatize their disaffection when he comes around.

 Duterte visit to normalize Phl-US ties

A STATE visit will help restore amiable relations, considering how Duterte had cursed President Obama, ridiculed his ambassador and made a big case of US senators’ objecting to the sale of military materiel to the Philippines due to his dismal human rights record.

On his first state visit to Beijing in 2017, President Duterte announced to his host President Xi Jinping that he was turning away from the US, a long-time ally and only security partner, as he sought massive Chinese loans and aid for his ambitious Build! Build! Build! infrastructure program.

It has been almost three years and Duterte is still waiting for the substantial delivery of the promised Chinese billions for his signature projects.

Will Manila’s growing impatience, and Beijing’s unfriendly behavior of late in the West Philippine Sea work to push him back into the arms of Uncle Sam?

With his intricate multifamily background, Duterte has developed coping abilities in handling complicated multilateral relations that will be useful in his managing ties with the US and China if/when he decides to keep both as bosom friends.

A warming of PHL-US relations will be mutually beneficial. The Philippines lies strategically between the South China Sea and the Pacific island stepping stations to the US mainland. As buffer, the archipelago hems in on one side the heavy maritime traffic in the South China Sea.

Under Trump, with an enlightened Duterte, the US could still regain the confidence and cooperation of its former colony in its campaign to ensure unhampered navigation, if not priority right of way, in the Indo-Pacific sea lanes below China.

The Philippines – like other neighbors with similar disputes with China over territory and resources – will have to be assertive. The separate negotiations with the two contending powers will test Duterte’s diplomatic acumen, if any, and patriotism, if ever.

Fortunately, Washington has been making clearer and bolder statements lately, hinting where its heart lies in the dispute over China’s grabbing and militarizing features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The signals are not lost to Duterte, we’re sure.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 16, 2019)

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