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Human Rights Barely Registers In Meeting Between Trump, Philippines' Duterte

President Trump shakes hand with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila, Philippines, on Sunday.
Athit Perawongmetha
President Trump shakes hand with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila, Philippines, on Sunday.

President Trump, in Manila on the last leg of his tour of five Asian nations, only briefly touched on the question of human rights with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has waged a deadly extra-judicial war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

Duterte, who just days before had boasted of killing someone as a teenager "just over a look" and once called President Obama a "son of a whore" for criticizing his bloody crackdown on drug dealers and users, which human rights activists say has killed more than 13,000 people.

As mayor of Davao, Duterte said he personally killed suspected criminals while out cruising on his motorcycle. And, he has compared his war on drugs to the Holocaust and said he would "slaughter addicts."

Duterte's brash demeanor and untempered language have earned him the nickname "Trump of the East." Trump, in turn, has praised Duterte — telling him in an April phone call that he was doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem."

Even so, over the summer Duterte turned down an offer from Trump to visit the White House, reportedly saying "I've seen American and it's lousy."

Nonetheless, the two leaders' seem to like each others' style and their propensity for mutual admiration continued on Monday at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippine capital.

Duterte took the stage for an impromptu duet with local pop star Pilitia Corrales, which he later said he had done "upon the orders of the commander-in-chief of the United States."

The song's title which translates from Tagalog as "You" and contains the verse: "You are the light in my world, a half of this heart of mine."

In remarks to the media at a bilateral meeting between the two leaders, Duterte joked about reporters being "spies," a remark that elicited a chuckle from Trump.

The two leaders have "a great relationship," Trump said.

"The ASEAN conference has been handled beautifully by the president of the Philippines and your representatives. I've really enjoyed being here," he said.

"Last night's event was fantastic. Tremendous talent. Most of it, I guess, from the Philippines. But tremendous talent, musical talent, dance talent. We really had a tremendous time, all of the leaders," he said.

Human Rights in the Philippines

Asked by reporters whether he had raised the topic of human rights with Duterte, Trump did not answer: "Whoa, whoa," Duterte said. "This not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the bilateral conversation between the two leaders focused on the Islamic State, illegal drugs, and trade. She said human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' anti-drug campaign.

However, Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, told reporters in Manila that the issue of human rights was not discussed even as the Philippine leader explained his anti-drug policy at length to Trump, who "seemed to be appreciative of his efforts."

At a brief address to ASEAN, Trump sounded one of the main themes of his five-nation tour of the region – "fairness and reciprocity" in international trade, while boasting that since he has taken office, the U.S. economy has performed "really brilliantly," with the highest stock market, lowest unemployment and business enthusiasm "off the charts."

Early in his administration, the president withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade pact which he has excoriated as unfair. On this trip, he has tried to lay the groundwork for a series of bilateral deals that he says will be more balanced.

Trump's stop in the Philippines for the ASEAN summit, with its 11 regional member-nations, follows his attendance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, where he delivered a speech harshly critical of the trade imbalance between the United States and many of the other nations in what the administration describes as the Indo-Pacific region.

'Freedom of Navigation' In South China Sea

Before leaving Vietnam, Trump formally transferred the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau to Hanoi to assist what the U.S. terms "freedom of navigation" patrols — as a show of strength against Beijing's efforts in recent years to flex its muscles in the South China Sea that has put China at odds with nearly every one of its maritime neighbors.

Trump offered to mediate the conflict in which China has taken active measures to lay claim to several disputed island chains.

"I'm a very good mediator and arbitrator," Trump said, offering to help resolve the dispute at a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi.

As The Associated Press notes: "Trump's offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls U.S. meddling in the disputes and has balked at the U.S. Navy's incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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