(WASHINGTON) — Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte dismissed concerns about his country’s human rights record hours after meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.
“Human rights, son of a b**** — policemen and soldiers have died on me,” he told reporters at a press conference. “Human rights — you go there and you might have a bomb dropped on your head.”
Duterte’s meeting with Tillerson came amid growing American support for his country’s battle with an ISIS affiliate that has attempted to seize territory within its borders and staged increasingly violent attacks.
Duterte has a history of salty language. He faced backlash for insulting former President Obama on multiple occasions — calling him the “son of a w****” and telling him to “go to hell.”
His human rights record has also been a source of controversy. He has often touted a violent, extrajudicial war on drugs that has killed thousands here in the Philippines, even bragging of killing drug dealers himself.
Tillerson’s aides said he would raise human rights in the meeting, but the secretary of state has been criticized for a perceived lack of focus on these issues. Tillerson told State Department employees in May that American values like human rights and democracy should take a back seat to national security and economic interests at times.
In the Philippines, the State Department has mostly stressed its concerns about the arrival of foreign ISIS fighters from the Middle East and about the longtime U.S. ally drifting closer to China and Russia.
The Duterte government has been struggling against an ISIS affiliate that seized control of the city Marawi on the country’s southern island Mindanao in May of this year.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command has been tracking the flow of some foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria to that fight in the Philippines, according to Tillerson. At the end of July, the Pentagon announced the transfer of two Cessna aircraft to the Filipino military for surveillance and reconnaissance, and Tillerson revealed Monday that “a couple of UAVs,” or drones, were part of that deal as well.
The U.S. has also provided “some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like what most people have ever had to deal with,” Tillerson added.
Last month, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff brought up the possibility of an operation assisting the Philippines in its fight against the ISIS affiliate, leading to speculation that the U.S. could be expanding its involvement with Duterte’s government.
“In every case where we see the resurgence of terror networks, particularly in the fragile areas of the southern Philippines, I think it is worth considering whether or not we reinstate a named operation not only to provide for the resources that are required, but to give the Pacific command commander and the field commanders in the Philippines the kinds of authorities they need to work with indigenous Philippine forces to actually help them be successful in that battle space,” Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in testimony last month.
Increased military cooperation with the Philippines could be seen by the U.S. as a buffer against Russia and China’s influence in the region after Duterte challenged his country’s decades-old alliance with the U.S. After touring two Russian warships Friday, Duterte said, “We welcome our Russian friends. Anytime you want to dock here for anything, for play, for replenish supplies or maybe our ally to protect us.”
Defending the Trump administration’s ties to Duterte, Tillerson said U.S. support for his fight against ISIS is not equivalent to support for his war on drugs.
“I see no conflict—no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of the human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter narcotics activities,” he told reporters Monday.
But Duterte himself made a direct connection between the two after his meeting with the U.S. delegation.
“The war in Marawi — what caused it, but drugs?” he said.
Before the meeting, Tillerson and Duterte smiled for cameras and shook hands at the presidential palace in Manila, ignoring American reporters’ shouted questions about human rights and what was on their agenda.
As press was ushered out, Duterte said to Tillerson, “You come at a time when the world is not so good, especially on the Korean Peninsula.”
The U.S. has been seeking more pressure on North Korea from its Asian neighbors to help bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
Tillerson was in the Philippines for a major summit hosted by Southeast Asian countries known collectively as ASEAN as he tried to rally support for full implementation of new United Nations sanctions on North Korea. Tillerson will stop in Thailand and Malaysia before returning to the U.S.
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