COURTING DUTERTE: pragmatic diplomacy or reckless abandonment?

Much ado about …

Much too much is being made of U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines.

What’s wrong with the invite?

The enemy of your enemy should be your friend. Was it not after all Duterte who called President Trump’s nemesis, former US President Barack Obama “a son of a whore” and some other choice words?  To someone who questioned Obama’s birth place (and kept at it even in the face of uncontroverted evidence) Duterte’s disparaging and vulgar remarks against Obama must have been hugely delighting.

So there is this pesky cloud hovering over Duterte; something having to do with thousands of extrajudicial killings, vigilantism, and human rights abuses.  But hey, didn’t those bad guys have it coming?  Duterte should be given a medal for going to war on drugs.  He is a strong leader, maybe as strong as that “pretty smart cookie” in North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the one Trump would be “honored” to meet with. You know, the one that killed his uncle (and probably his half-brother) and is now flirting with the destiny of the entire Korean Peninsula.  Trump just loves strong leaders, Putin, Kim Jong-un, Erdoğan, el-Sisi, Duterte; so simpatico.

And speaking of North Korea, isn’t Duterte essential to ratcheting things down with the Hermit Kingdom?

OK, maybe this is a wee bit of a stretch.  The Philippines doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Duterte has not stood up in the past (and there is no indication that he has any inclination to do so now) against Kim Jong-un’s missile tests for the nuclear weapons he is trying to build. Duterte has been talking tough on kicking the Yankee bases off the islands (maybe that was just an Obama thing). He is cozying up to China for trade in exchange for giving up claims on the South China Sea Islands (and ditching another U.S. ally – Japan). And don’t look too closely at the map – the Philippines is not exactly North Korea’s next door neighbor.

Facts. Facts always seem get in the way of the truth – or is it the truth that gets in the way of a good yarn?

What’s so bad with inviting Duterte to the White House?

Well, where do I begin?

In Duterte’s own words, he has ordered the execution of drug dealers and drug users.  When he was Mayor of Davao City he set up a death squad to go around and gun down anyone he and fellow executioners (be they police officers sworn to serve and protect, or citizen soldiers of Duterte’s private army) deemed unfit to live.  He has bragged about personally riding around at night and gunning down suspected drug dealers – sometimes to show police officers how it has to be done: “In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can’t you.”

Since elected, Duterte has insistently excoriated and taunted anyone who dared to criticize his methods of enforcing his brand of Rule of Law that has taken over 8000 lives since May 2016. Constitutionally elected, Duterte has no use for constitutional niceties, no respect for human rights, and certainly, no regard for life.

While I noted in my last post that he should not be prejudged and that the communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) should be seriously considered with full regard to the ICC procedures and Duterte’s human rights, his own words condemn him of crimes against humanity.  Duterte’s damning admissions are supported by the body-count of victims which he unflinchingly takes credit for as proof of his methods and results of his war on drugs.1 Whether Madame Fatou Bensouda, the ICC Prosecutor, will give the communication the consideration it deserves remains to be seen. Though Duterte, through his own words, may be confirming a booking reservation at the United Nations Detention Unit in The Hague where charged guests of the ICC are accommodated.

Why should this matter?

Well, the US has long stood for human rights.  Admittedly, it has a checkered past; its rhetoric has not always matched its actions. However, the US is expected – at least among liberal democracies – to be the presumptive vanguard in championing human rights.  So for Trump embrace Duterte and reward him with an invitation to the White House – the people’s house of the United States (not one of Trump’s suites or his pay-to-play Mar-a-Lago resort) – is an affront. This invitation legitimizes Duterte.  In no small measure, it is an endorsement of his extrajudicial killings, his thuggery, and his utter disregard for human rights. This endorsement, which carries the imprimatur of the Office of the President of the Untitled States of America, is an abandonment of the U.S.’s moral authority.

Unquestionably it is essential to use the soft power of diplomacy to nudge foreign leaders into adjusting their behavior or changing a course of action.  Yes, sit-downs and dialogues are important. But under what circumstances should these sit-downs and dialogues take place?  Meeting Duterte at a region conference or in New York at a United Nations gathering can achieve much more than a White House photo-op followed by vacuous compliments of the mutual-admiration kind.

But, for a soft power meeting of any substance, Trump first needs to figure out his (the US’s) long-term foreign policy, something that is more than a campaign slogan or a soundbite peppered with his usual trite claptrap about his acumen for deal-making or an early morning tweet. As for dealing with Duterte (pun intended), Trump can stop being enamored with Duterte the strongman, the self-confessed murderer, the serial abuser of human rights, and start being attentive to figuring out how the US can maintain a close working relationship with the Philippines, without legitimizing Duterte’s sanctioned extrajudicial killings and unconstitutional methods of governance.

Is Trump engaged in pragmatic diplomacy by hosting Duterte at the White House and condoning his drug war – as opposed to condemning it as other leaders who share the US’s democratic and human rights values do have done?  Hardly. Without preparation, planning, and information, Trump’s phone calls to foreign leaders are more akin to drunk-dialing than practiced diplomacy.

Anyway, Duterte might be too busy for a White House visit, being “tied up” with other international trips to Russia and Israel.  Perhaps he, at least, realizes the potential for a White House visit to turn into a fiasco.


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  1. Rodrigo Duterte says he once threw a suspect from helicopter, The Guardian, 26 December 2016; Philippines’ Duterte: ‘I killed three men’, BBC News, 16 December 2016; Philippines’ Duterte admits personally killing suspects, BBC News, 14 December 2016; Philippines President Duterte ‘once killed man with Uzi’. BBC News, 15 September 2016.[]

Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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