Rights issues loom as Tillerson, Duterte meet
MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met Monday with America’s top diplomat, voicing solidarity with the U.S. amid global concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program and angrily dismissing media questions about human-rights abuses by his government.
Duterte and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met in Manila at a regional meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was the highest-level interaction to date between a member of President Donald Trump’s administration and Duterte, who is accused by human-rights groups of flagrant abuses in his bloody war against illegal drugs.
If the two leaders discussed those or other U.S. concerns about Duterte’s government, they didn’t do so in public. Instead, the two focused on the alliance between the two countries and on the North Korea issue as reporters were allowed in briefly for the start of their meeting.
Duterte welcomed the American and said he knew the U.S. was concerned about Pyongyang’s missile program.
“You come at a time when I think the world is not so good, especially in the Korean Peninsula,” Duterte said.
Earlier, as they shook hands, the two ignored a shouted question about whether they would discuss human rights. And at a news conference after their meeting, Duterte bristled but didn’t answer directly when asked whether human rights had come up.
“Human rights, son of a b***h,” Duterte said, arguing he shouldn’t be questioned about alleged violations given the challenges he’s facing. “Policemen and soldiers have died on me. The war now in Marawi, what caused it but drugs? So human rights, don’t go there.”
But ahead of the meeting, Duterte’s presidential spokesman, Ernesto Bella, said the topic would indeed come up, along with other pressing matters such as global terrorism threats, economic cooperation and security in Marawi, the city that has been under siege by pro-Islamic State militants for more than two months.
The U.S., too, said ahead of the meeting that human rights would be among the topics on the agenda.
Human- rights groups have questioned the Trump administration’s willingness to engage with Duterte. But Tillerson argued there’s no contradiction presented by the U.S. decision to help the Philippines fight the militants.
Nearly 700 people have died in the fighting, including 528 militants and 122 soldiers and policemen, since hundreds of gunmen stormed into buildings and homes in Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the southern third of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.