Meeting between Trump and Philippines president Duterte barely touches on 'human rights'

US President Donald Trump said he had a 'great relationship' with Philippines president, as he praised him for his bloody crackdown on the war on drugs

US President Donald Trump talks with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila
US President Donald Trump talks with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila

US President Donald Trump hailed his relationship with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of acting with impunity, over a war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

Trump, who made no mention of human rights in his remarks to reporters before meeting Duterte ignored shouted questions about the drugs crackdown, alongside Duterte.

Trump is currently in the country with 18 other leaders, for two days of summits, on the final leg of his tour of Asia.

According to a spokesman for Duterte, human rights issues were not raised during the meeting, although the pair did discuss their mutual distaste for Barack Obama.

“The issue of human rights did not arise. It was not brought up,” Harry Roque said of a 40-minute conversation in Manila.

“It was President Duterte who brought up with President Trump the drug menace in the Philippenes, and the US president appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter but was merely nodding his head,” he said, adding he was present.

Later, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the matter of human rights came up “briefly”, although she did not say which president raised the issue. 

Prior to their meeting, Trump said he and Duterte “had a great relationship” and the two men shared a laugh when Duterte called reporters “spies”.

Roque described the meeting as “warm and friendly”, adding: “It’s very apparent that both of them have a person who they consider as not their best friend. They have similar feelings towards former US president Barack Obama.”

The absence of a proper discussion about rights is sure to anger critics of Duterte and rights groups and US politicians strongly urged Trump to confront Duterte on the drugs war.

Duterte, a former prosecutor, has taken an indignant stance to the criticism, warning the Catholic church “don’t fuck with me” and accusing the UN of issuing “shitting” statements about his policies. On Friday, he boasted that he once stabbed a person to death, in his latest apparent admission of murder, adding to a list of similar public statements.

“At the age of 16, I already killed someone,” Duterte said during a speech in Vietnam, where he briefly crossed paths with Trump on the side-lines of another international summit.

Relations between the US and its former colony, allies since the second world war, were at a low during Obama’s tenure. Duterte has since pushed for better ties with Russia and China.

Trump and Duterte seem to have warmed to each other after meeting for the first time on Saturday at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) group meeting in Vietnam.

Trump has generally avoided publicly admonishing foreign leaders for rights abuses and has even shown an affinity for rulers with autocratic tendencies, including the Egyptian president, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

As the two leaders met, hundreds of left-wing protesters clashed in central Manila with riot police, who used water cannons to disperse the crowds.

The demonstrators chanted against the drugs crackdown as well as other issues such as Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on North Korea. They burnt an effigy of the US president that showed the billionaire developer with four arms, all bent into the shape of a swastika.

Protesters burn an effigy of Donald Trump at a march in Manila (Photo: AFP)
Protesters burn an effigy of Donald Trump at a march in Manila (Photo: AFP)

Duterte has regularly been described as the “Donald Trump of Asia” for his mercurial temperament and anti-establishment populist support.

Trump previously praised Duterte’s bloody crackdown, saying he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”.

“Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as Asean chair at this critical moment of time,” he said at a press conference. “The show last night was fantastic. And you were fantastic.”

According to Philippine officials, more than 3,000 people have lost their lives in the war on the drugs. Human rights groups believe that the death toll of mostly alleged drug users and suspected dealers is actually much higher.