White House defends Duterte invite despite human rights concerns

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Story highlights

  • Duterte's war on drugs has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings
  • Administration officials say US national security comes first

Washington (CNN) The White House pushed back against criticism of President Donald Trump's invitation to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte Monday, saying it was part of the US effort to rein in North Korea and stay engaged with allies despite concerns about Duterte's human rights record.

The President "is interested in human rights issues, but he's not going to allow that interest and concern keep him from defending the national security interests of the United States," a senior administration official said.
Another told CNN, "There was broad agreement (inside the administration) that we needed to remain engaged for the sake of the alliance, and that we would be more effective raising our human rights issues if we keep up a relationship."
    Trump invited Duterte to the White House during a Saturday phone call, setting off criticism and raising new concerns about the administration's balance between human rights and national security.
    The invitation also raises questions about US strategic interests, Trump's business ties and the preferred leadership style of an administration that is downsizing the State Department and concentrating decision-making among a small number of people around the President.
    While logistics of the call were discussed with the State Department, which prepared briefing materials, the agency wasn't told beforehand about Trump's invitation, which would likely raise concerns because of the human rights situation, according to an agency official who spoke anonymously to discuss the White House.
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    Many said the invitation puts a US stamp of approval on Duterte's "war on drugs" that has killed as many as 7,000 people since June 30 in what human rights groups say is a campaign of extrajudicial executions that could amount to crimes against humanity.
    The killings were one element in a rapid cooling between the US and its former colony under President Barack Obama. Duterte dismissed Obama as a "son of a b***h" when asked how he'd react if the US raised concerns about the deaths.
    He followed by announcing he was realigning the Philippines toward China and then threatened to suspend an agreement that lets the US base troops in his country.
    Administration officials said they are repairing that damage, a job made all the more urgent by the specter of North Korea's nuclear program and growing tensions in the region.
    "Given the strategic importance of the relationship with the Philippines -- counterterrorism issues, the terrorism issues -- this relationship is enormously important to us," the first senior administration official told CNN. "All you have to do is look at a map to see that having a positive or at least functional relationship with that country is hugely in our interests."
    Trump told Bloomberg News on Monday that "the Philippines is very important to me strategically and militarily."
    He added that Duterte maintains strong public support even as he continues the anti-drug campaign. "You know he's very popular in the Philippines. He has a very high approval rating in the Philippines."
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    Duterte, on the other, said he might not accept the invitation. He told The Philippine Star newspaper that he "cannot make any definite promise" about accepting Trump's invitation "because I'm tied up" with trips to Russia and Israel, among other things. Trump and Duterte are scheduled to meet in the Philippines in November at a summit of Asian nations.
    A White House statement Saturday described the weekend conversation as "very friendly" and said it touched on North Korea, the Novermber meeting that Trump will attend in the Philippines, and the fact that the country is "fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs, a scourge that affects many countries throughout the world."
    Presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have long struggled to strike a balance between defending US values and engaging with regimes that fail to respect them. But critics accuse Trump of rarely paying so much as lip service to those values. They were quick to denounce the invitation.
    New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat, questioned the Philippines' strategic worth in confronting Pyongyang.
    The invitation "is unnecessary for addressing the challenge of North Korea, the most pressing crisis in the Asia Pacific," he said. He urged Trump to reconsider the invitation, denouncing Duterte's "brutal" drug war.
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    Sen. Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio would be introducing legislation "to make it clear to President Duterte that there will be consequences for his barbaric actions."
    The measures would include preventing certain US weapons from being sold to the national police and supporting human rights and civil society organizations.
    Cardin added that Trump "may rarely speak about or uphold the values that make America exceptional, but I will, along with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle." He, too, urged Trump to reverse course and withdraw the invitation.
    Some analysts warned that it can be a mistake to put human rights and national security in separate baskets and that doing so can eventually create problems that Washington has to wade in and deal with.
    Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed to the Syrian war and the refugee crisis it has created: "When we ignore those abuses, we do nothing to eliminate the causes of those conflicts and it ends up provoking national security crises for the United States."
    Amnesty and other groups have documented killings by Philippines' police and unidentified vigilantes who, the groups say, have shot people in cold blood, including street children, planted evidence and set up secret jails.
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    Duterte, like Trump, loves to flagrantly buck norms. He has reveled in his tough-guy reputation and "Duterte Harry" nickname, boasting during his presidential campaign that the 1,000 drug users he was thought to have had killed while mayor of a major city would become 100,000 if he was elected the country's leader.
    The Philippines is a crucial element in the strategic battle with China for influence in Asia. The nation of 7,000 islands has had a long-running dispute with China over maritime claims in the South China Sea that the US carefully urged be settled through international law.
    Yet in the months after his June 30 inauguration, Duterte downplayed the Philippine's US-backed legal victory on the issue of the South China Sea islands, said he would turn to China and Russia, instead of the US, for arms purchases and told a Beijing audience in October that he was announcing his "separation from the United States."
    The Filipino leader is now echoing China's line on North Korea, calling publicly for Trump to show restraint.
    "There seem to be two countries playing with their toys," he said at a Friday news conference, referring to nuclear weapons both countries posses. "Their toys are really not to entertain."
    Trump, who has a licensing deal for a Trump Tower in downtown Manila, also has well-publicized admiration for strongmen such as Duterte, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose human rights and democracy records Trump has paid less attention to than security considerations.
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    And Trump has cultivated a surprisingly positive relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite constant criticism of Beijing on the campaign trail, as a key partner in curbing the North Korea threat. It's another reason why the White House might see advantages in building ties with Duterte, for all his drawbacks.
    Trump's willingness to "overlook a reign of terror in the Philippines sends a very bad signal to all kinds of leaders all over the world," said Huang of Amnesty.
    White House officials have said that Trump prefers to raise human rights concerns behind closed doors.
    "It's certainly something to be raised," the senior administration official said, noting the private way the President handled Egypt's Sisi.
    The administration said that the Egyptian government's release of an Egyptian-American charity worker who was jailed for three years on flimsy charges is evidence that the quieter approach yields results.
    But Huang said the strategy is not a smart one.
    "It sets a dangerous precedent for what the United States is willing to ignore in the pursuit of other interests," she said.