Having expounded on the “rule of law” in my previous column (“Rule of law: The principle Duterte has not trampled on,” Manila Times, September 6, 2016), I feel bound to also do the same on the subject of “human rights,” especially because the issue has driven a wedge in Philippine –American relations, and has momentarily unhinged Philippine standing in the United Nations.
Human rights is the club that critics of the Philippine war on drugs are using to batter President Duterte, but it is unclear why the issue should weigh so heavily now on the long-standing relationship between the Philippines and the United States, and on Philippine membership in the UN.
The facts show that the misunderstanding between presidents Obama and Duterte would not have happened had the White House not overplayed the human rights issue in announcing the planned meeting of Obama and Duterte, and had the foreign media not sensationalized the unfounded story that Duterte had called Obama a “son of a whore.”
It could all have been avoided had the Obama White House given due regard to the lessons of history when a US president ventures to lecture the world on human rights, and reviewed the diplomatic record and literature on the issue.
White House statements provoke reply
The rigmarole began when the White House announced that US President Barack Obama would meet with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos, starting on September 6.
When asked whether Duterte’s controversial remarks about vigilante killings, journalists and women would be on the agenda, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said: “We absolutely expect (President Obama) will raise concerns about some of the recent statements from the president of the Philippines.” Rhodes said Obama regularly brought up issues around human rights offenses with treaty allies such as the Philippines.
Thinking perhaps that the first announcement of the meeting was too bland, White House staff issued another statement to the media. It said that President Obama will “pull no punches” in talking to Duterte.
Another aide was quoted by the media as saying that Obama would confront Duterte about his country’s handling of drug dealers, including extrajudicial killings.
Raise concerns? Pull no punches? Confront? At this torrent of statements, Duterte bristled, and he came out swinging with his own stinging reply.
A careful review of what Duterte actually said (in English or Filipino) shows that he never called Obama a “son of a whore.” He spoke with vehemence, yes, but he did not curse Obama.
And the thrust of his tirade was to affirm that the Philippines is a sovereign nation.
What he said was this: “Who does he [Obama] think he is? I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people.”
The mix-up impelled Obama to cancel the meeting with Duterte. A statement said that Obama was concerned whether the meeting, if it pushed through, could be productive.
Carter’s stress on human rights in foreign policy
Before Obama and his aides talked of human rights in US relations with other nations, there was one US president who made human rights a central goal of US foreign policy- Jimmy Carter (US President, 1977 – 1981).
A moral ideologue, Carter insisted on applying the human rights test not only to America’s adversaries like the Soviet Union; he sought to apply it also to US allies. This angered authoritarian governments that were upbraided by the policy. But more importantly, it angered many foreign policy experts in the US, who saw the HR policy as naïve, moralistic and dangerous. They contended that strategic concerns must take precedence over human rights concerns.
Today, Carter is chiefly remembered as a better ex- president than he was as president. He won the Nobel prize as a private citizen.
Human rights and state sovereignty
Human rights advocates tend to exaggerate the claims of human rights, far beyond the limits recognized when it was first introduced in international relations.
Although president Harry Truman told the UN conference in San Francisco in 1945 that “the Charter is dedicated to the achievement and observance of human rights and freedoms,” the UN charter in Article 2, section 7, explicitly limits that dedication in this way: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter…”
Without explicitly citing the provision, President Duterte invokes the sovereign right of the Philippines when he protests US and UN criticism of the drug war and their itch to intervene in Philippine affairs.
In her book, Statecraft, Margaret Thatcher writes perceptively about the issue of human rights and state sovereignty. She wrote: “the preamble of the UN Charter rousingly declared: “We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to affirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small….” But the key clauses of the Charter in actual fact describe a system which assumes that sovereign states, not any international body, exercise power within their borders; in which the legitimate scope for intervention is extremely limited…indeed this combination of far-reaching statements of principle with very limited means of giving effect to them is characteristic of international human rights discourse.
“This does not mean that the 20th century international preoccupation with human rights has been a waste of time; it is simply that the UN conventions and documents on human rights, covering so many rights, were assumed to apply within an international order based upon sovereign states, whose own governments had the ultimate responsibility to give them effect.”
Human rightism and strategic objectives?
I close with this observation:
Without saying that he did curse the US President, President Duterte has commendably expressed his regrets over statements that were misreported and distorted to become a personal attack by him against Obama.
The two governments have agreed to reschedule an Obama- Duterte meeting to a more propitious time.
The Philippine government issued a statement that underscored the importance of the Philippines-US relationship.
And there is now clear recognition by both sides that our bilateral relationship is of great strategic importance to international order and Asia-Pacific security and cooperation. Human rights disputes or “human rightism” should not imperil this overarching strategic objective.