US President Donald Trump and Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte may or may not have discussed the controversial issue of human rights during their first formal meeting on Monday, but they undoubtedly hit it off.
Trump and Duterte’s representatives were at odds on whether the topics of human rights violations or extrajudicial killings were discussed during the bilateral talks on the sides of the ASEAN summit in Manila.
But the camps were in agreement that the rapport between Trump and Duterte was “warm and friendly,” and that the Philippine-US relationship was “great.”
During a leaders’ dinner on Sunday, the two sat at the same table and were seen laughing together. Duterte even belted out a Filipino love song at the encouragement of Trump.
While Trump did not respond to questions shouted by reporters on whether he raised human rights at their meeting on Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the topic came up in the discussions – “briefly.”
“The conversation focused on IS, illegal drugs and trade,” she said. “Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.”
But Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters that Trump did not raise concerns about human rights during the 40-minute meeting, which he described as “frank.”
“The US president appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter, and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs,” Roque said.
When asked about Sanders’ statement, Roque told reporters: “There was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extrajudicial killings.”
“There was only a rather lengthy discussion on the Philippines’ war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining,” he added.
US lawmakers and human rights groups have urged Trump to express concern about the killings related to the anti-drug campaign of the Duterte administration, which has left thousands dead.
His silence could be construed as a tacit approval of the widely criticised campaign, whose victims have so far included teenagers, women and former drug addicts who had previously surrendered.
When reporters tried to press Trump on the issue, Duterte told the media: “Whoa, whoa. This is not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.”
Trump only had good words for Duterte at the meeting between the US and the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, even referring to the Philippine president by his first name.
“Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as ASEAN chair at this very critical moment in time and in the association’s history – such an important event,” he said. “And I want to thank you for your incredible hospitality.”
In their bilateral meeting, Trump told Duterte that the US and the Philippines have “a great relationship.”
Duterte reiterated that the alliance with America “has always been very strong and very important,” Roque said, despite “sour points” after former president Barack Obama criticised the Philippine government’s drug war.
“There would be a marked difference in the relations between President Trump and President Duterte,” he added about their connection, with Philippine media has referred to as a blossoming “bromance.”
At least 3,850 people have been killed in police operations against drug suspects between the time when Duterte came into office on June 30, 2016, and September 16, 2017, according to police data. Police said those killed fought back when arrested.
Aside from those killed in police operations, authorities are also investigating the deaths of nearly 11,000 people to determine if their killings were related to illegal drugs and carried out by hired or vigilante killers.