When Human Rights becomes the Big Elephant in the Room

U.S. President Donald Trump just met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte today for their very first bilateral talks.

They discussed US-Philippine relations. They discussed trade. They discussed North Korea. And many other things. But there was no mention of Duterte’s brutal drug war and human rights issues.

The Philippine President has been leading an all-out anti-drugs campaign that has resulted in extrajudicial killings and human rights violations.  According to reports, at least 7,000 people have been killed by police authorities and vigilantes as a consequence of the Duterte administration’s flagship policy. The president himself has bragged several times about personally participating in the killings.

A futile question

We were fools to even wonder if Trump would raise the controversial issue. That perhaps even just behind closed doors, Trump might say something like, “Rodrigo dude, about your drug war. Thousands dying. That’s huge. But very bad. Not nice.”

But it was obvious from the start that they weren’t going to talk about it.  Duterte has been rabid about defending his drug crusade from any outside interference. He even called former U.S. President Barack Obama and European Union leaders, “sons of bitches” for trying to meddle.

And Trump, for his part, has expressed from the get-go that he doesn’t care. Under his “America First” campaign and his brand of foreign policy, there will be no interfering with the domestic affairs of America’s allies and strategic partners. What matters is to get them aligned with U.S. national interests – even if that meant ignoring human rights abuses.

The same thing happened in the past few days. Before coming to the Philippines, Trump came face-to-face with other Asian leaders with poor human rights records during his first official trip to Asia. The Cambodian government’s crackdown on media and political dissenters. The persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The countless human rights violations in China. But Trump was mute to all that.

A different Uncle Sam

This is the first for the Philippines, for Asia, and for the rest of the world: an American President who disregards and almost condones the violation of certain basic democratic principles. We may not always love the U.S. We may often abhor its double-standard foreign policy. But at least, in history, the U.S. has always been the staunch champions of human rights and other fundamental values of democracy.

But not anymore. Not in these times. Ever since Trump, the U.S. has miserably fallen off its democratic high horse. So much so that even if Trump were to speak up on human rights, he would no longer appear and sound so credible. 

In a way, we Filipinos should rejoice. As a former colony of the U.S., we’ve often struggled to free ourselves of Uncle Sam’s interference and influence. We’ve often resented Uncle Sam’s intrusion into our domestic affairs. Now finally, here is an American president who is willing to back off and leave us to our own problems.

But there is something horribly wrong with the picture when a Big Brother who has always been the first to rein you in when you stray from the democratic path suddenly ignores your most blatant transgressions. As if the message were, you can now get away with anything so long as you cater to Big Brother’s interests. Isn’t it ironic. Just when the Philippines could use some of that usually unwelcome U.S. meddling to address a life-and-death issue, suddenly the country isn’t getting any.

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