Thursday, 2 December 2021

Trump Asia tour


When a president who boasted he could shoot someone in central New York and still get elected meets another president who boasts he has actually killed people, and remains popular and in office, you know not to expect much on human rights.

And so it proved in the much-anticipated meeting of US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Over the past year and a half, many thousands – the actual numbers are hard to calculate exactly – of people have been killed in President Duterte’s war on drugs, some of them children, some with only scant evidence of any connection to the drug trade.

They have been killed by police officers, supposedly shooting in self-defence, but the almost universal similarity of the police accounts of these killings suggests many are extra-judicial executions.

They have been killed by masked gunmen, some of whom are linked to the police, or may be non-uniformed police officers. It is a human rights catastrophe, but one President Duterte has defended as necessary to rid the Philippines of its drug addiction problem.

After making mild criticism of the killings last year, then-US President Barack Obama received a tongue-lashing from Mr Duterte, who memorably referred to him as a “son of a whore”.

The irascible Philippine president warned he would do the same if President Trump raised the issue. But he need not have worried.

From the account of his spokesman, the topic of human rights was not raised at all by Mr Trump – and it was mentioned in their joint statement in such a vague way as to be meaningless.

The same happened in China and Vietnam, two countries where dissidents are routinely harassed, arrested and given long prison sentences.

One Vietnamese blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a single mother better known as “Mother Mushroom”, was given an award for courage by First Lady Melania Trump in March.

Three months later, a Vietnamese court sentenced her to 10 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state”. There is no evidence President Trump even mentioned her case to his Vietnamese hosts.

While in Manila, Mr Trump allowed a photograph of himself, smiling with his thumb up, together with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is not only locking up politicians and dismantling the main opposition party, but has also expelled the US government-funded National Democratic Institute, and accused the US of backing a plot to overthrow him.

The US ambassador to Cambodia has called the accusation “absurd” and “without a shred of serious or credible evidence”. It is not clear whether Mr Trump knew this, or cared, when he took his selfie with the Cambodian leader.

All across South East Asia, from Thailand, which is living through a fourth year under military rule, and where critics of the monarchy are sentenced to decades in jail, to Malaysia, where those who speak out on the huge 1MDB corruption scandal can be prosecuted under a range of repressive laws, human rights and democracy are being pushed back in a way unseen since the 1970s.

Yet Mr Trump’s main preoccupation is trade, not values. In his remarks to journalists as he left the Philippine capital, Manila, the president talked of a $12bn (£9bn) purchase of Boeing aircraft by Vietnam, and of the success in fixing the relationship with the Philippines, which he described as “the most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint”.

One US official, when questioned by a colleague over why President Trump did not speak out about human rights, asked why other countries in this region, like Japan, do not do it. But Japan has always avoided any appearance of an adversarial approach to its foreign policy, preferring bland language and the lubricating attributes of lavish international aid.

It is the United States, since the end of the Cold War, which has carried the torch for democracy and human rights in the region, not just reminding governments of their obligations under the UN charter, but funding, training and encouraging non-government organisations and opposition politicians trying to hold those governments to account.

“Protecting human rights in the South East Asia region has always been about defending against government leaders prepared to run roughshod over opposition politicians, NGOs and community activists who stand in the way of their leaders’ accumulation of absolute power, and the corrupt riches that go with it,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, Asia.

“President Trump’s abdication of human rights was front and centre at this Asean summit, leaving a big hole in that defence.”

Rohingya crisis

In the absence of the US, it was left to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to raise the issue of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and the mass expulsion of Rohingyas from Rakhine State in Myanmar.

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, also highlighted what he called the “protracted tragedy” of the displaced Rohingyas, and offered to help strengthen the little known Asean Inter-government Commission on Human Rights, AICHR. But neither of their voices speak as loudly as that of the US president.

The AICHR was established in 2009, but is only a consultative body, and its members are government appointees.

Then came the first Asean Human Rights Declaration, in 2012. But this supposedly historic step forward was dismissed by activists as toothless, weakened by the fact that it was non-binding on its signatories, unlike the European Convention on Human Rights, and that its list of individual rights had to be balanced by obligations to the community and society.

It was drafted with no consultation at all with the 600 million people who live in the Asean countries.

Addressing human rights concerns is also hampered by the sacred Asean principle of non-interference in each others’ internal affairs. President Duterte and his supporters have insisted the killings in his anti-drug campaign are solely a matter for Filipinos, and no-one else.

Worrying times

The government in Myanmar has tried the same defence of the actions of its security forces in Rakhine State, although the arrival of 600,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh does make them a transnational issue.

For the hundreds of non-government organisations and civil society groups in South East Asia, which have become accustomed to US support, these are worrying times.

Their own governments have been emboldened, perhaps by the statements by President Trump that he is only interested in what will benefit Americans, perhaps by the steady rise of China, which has no interest in promoting human rights, or perhaps by the collapse of faith in Western values in general, following the disastrous Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, and the eroding legitimacy of the Western model of democracy.

The assumption that countries in this region must inevitably move towards democratic governance and a higher protection of civil rights no longer holds.

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