The United States has announced that President Donald Trump will take up human rights issues in the Philippines with President Rodrigo Duterte in their one-on-one meeting sometime during the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit this November. It’s hardly likely that the meeting with Trump will result in any immediate change in the state of compliance with human rights standards of the Duterte regime. But Trump’s bringing them up now is a reminder that those issues can be used later when it suits US interests.
Unlike the leaders of other Western countries, Trump expressed his approval of the way Mr. Duterte was waging his campaign against illegal drugs during a telephone conversation with the latter last December, 2016. Like Mr. Duterte, however, Trump has also been accused of ignorance of, and contempt for, human rights. But because the United States is a world power, the accusation against Trump has included claims that by ignoring and even praising human rights abuses outside the US, he has encouraged human rights abuses in other countries, among them Turkey, China, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines.
During Trump’s first 100 days in office, Amnesty International (AI) named 100 indicators of Trump’s utter lack of concern for human rights. Among these are his ignoring and near-encouragement of hate crimes against Muslim, Jewish and other ethnic communities in the US; his anti-immigration policies that’s breaking up families by deporting the children of documented immigrants; his plan to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US; his denying protection for members of the LGBT (lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgenders) community; his hostility to dissent and free expression and his describing the press as “the enemy;” and his preventing those who’re persecuted in the countries of their birth from seeking asylum in the US.
Internationally, AI listed among Trump’s disregard for and outright hostility to human rights his call to bomb countries he considers unfriendly to the US even at the risk of killing women and children and other non-combatants; his increasing the risk of nuclear war through his incendiary threats and reckless rhetoric; his slashing US funding for the United Nations; and his scorn for the international bodies that monitor and encourage compliance with human rights protocols.
Those who haven’t been living in a cave since Mr. Duterte took office in 2016 would be correct in noting the similarities between his and Trump’s disdain for human rights and its defenders, the UN, free speech and dissent, the press and the media, and international human rights groups and standards.
Why then would Trump bring up human rights issues with Mr. Duterte during a meeting of presumably like minds? Does that mean that despite himself, Trump will convince Mr. Duterte to observe both Philippine human rights standards such as the presumption of innocence and the right to life and a fair trial, as well as the international protocols — among them the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — to which the Philippines is a signatory?
The likelihood is that Trump will not call for a halt to extrajudicial killings and the threats against regime critics and human rights defenders, just as he has not done so in conversations with the leaders of other countries similarly accused of human rights abuses as the Philippines. But as legitimate a need as respect for human rights is in a world of unrest and conflict, it does not mean that the US ruling class will not use the human rights card among the weapons available to it to compel the Duterte and any other regime similarly challenged to maintain the country’s stiflingly close relations with the US. This consideration explains why Trump will bring up human rights issues during his meeting with Mr. Duterte. It is a US trump card, human rights concerns being widespread across the planet as well as the United States.
Both Mr. Duterte and his highest officials, such as the secretaries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense, claim that after the very brief period of uncertainty in the future of US-Philippine relations when Mr. Duterte took offense at, and cursed outgoing US President Barack Obama for his criticism of the human rights cost of his campaign against illegal drugs, the Donald Trump presidency is ushering in stronger US-Philippine relations.
This claim assumes that those relations are shaped by the differences in the views, perspectives and even the personalities of presidents. This belief simplifies a complex phenomenon in which human rights, despite its undisputed value, has for decades been an important weapon to compel the rest of the world to accede to US economic and strategic interests. Regardless of Trump’s personal views, US use of human rights in furtherance of those interests, which trump all else, will continue.
US foreign and domestic policies have been in place for decades and are sustained by structural factors focused on maintaining and expanding US global dominance. Changes in the US leadership have hardly made a difference in those policies except in their implementation.
The case of former US President Obama is illustrative of how even the politics and personal wishes of the most powerful man in the world can be thwarted by the unchanging fundamentals of US policies. In 2008 Obama vowed to shut down the US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, where hundreds of individuals suspected of terrorism and/or links to terrorist groups are being held without having been tried. It remains open today, with very little hope that the detainees will ever be released.
US deeds to assure dominance over the planet, whether committed under a Democratic or Republican administration, are essentially the same. Even the means to achieve it — invasion, bombings, assassinations, and muscle diplomacy, including condemnation of a country’s human rights record — have remained unchanged since the US became top dog in the imperialist game.
Certain structural factors are equally crucial even in the making of Philippine policies. When Mr. Duterte declared that he would adopt an independent foreign policy, knowledgeable Filipinos assumed that he meant a policy independent of the United States, to which successive Philippine administrations have subordinated the country’s interests.
However, Mr. Duterte has since realized that the difficulty of implementing such a policy is deeply rooted in the colonial character of the country’s institutions. His opening to the Left and his announced intention to pursue an independent foreign policy have foundered on the rumblings of discontent and even rumors of coup attempts from the Philippine military, the generals of which have for decades identified Philippine national interests with those of the United States. Mr. Duterte has in fact gone as far as to claim that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is conspiring with local groups to remove him from office.
And yet Mr. Duterte assumes that because Trump approves of his brutal approach to the drug problem, and shares his contempt for human rights, a new era of stronger US-Philippine relations has come to pass.
Will these stronger relations simply be based on the seeming rapport between him and Trump? Or on the basis of, among others, the country’s dependence on US economic and military aid, which at any time can be withheld on the claim that it is in violation of human rights standards?
Trump — whose US approval ratings have fallen to historic lows — may approve of what Duterte is doing. But that doesn’t mean unanimity across such other centers of power as the US Congress, the State Department, and even more crucially, the military-industrial complex that 34th US President Dwight Eisenhower implied in his farewell address in 1961 had become even more powerful than the president in the making of policy.