By ignoring the demands of two US congressmen and international human rights NGOs for him to take up their issues with his counterpart during his visit to the Philippines, US President Donald Trump may have helped uncover the most effective way of handling the oftentimes ambitious wishes of these advocates.
The correct response is to deprive them of the oxygen of publicity. Without an explicit response to their demand, these groups have nowhere to go and no fodder to use for their next press statement. Without publicity, they cannot raise donations for their operations. In time, they may realize that they have no choice but to shut up.
Just before President Trump left Washington for his 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia, US Representatives Randy Hultgren of Illinois and James McGovern of Massachusetts urged Trump to “impress upon President Duterte the United States’ profound concern over reported extrajudicial killings associated with the Philippine government’s ‘war on drugs’” when they meet in Manila.
President Trump is now in the Philippines. He has met with President Duterte. They have gotten along fine, first in Vietnam and now in the Philippines. Today, in the final stop of Trump’s itinerary, the East Asia Summit will be convened and concluded.
The issue of the drug war may have come up in the talks between them, but presidential spokesman Harry Roque said it was in the context of the Philippines following the rule of law. “But no express mention of HR or EJKs,” Roque added, referring to human rights and extrajudicial killings.
In a fuller statement issued to the media, Roque said: “PRRD (President Duterte) likewise discussed with President Trump the drug menace in the Philippines. The visiting US leader seems to sympathize with the Philippines and seems to understand the domestic drug situation.”
For their grandiose effort, it would appear that the biggest reward McGovern and Hultgren will reap from their demands is most probably a Philippine government decision to bar them from entering the Philippines. Duterte raised the possibility when he told reporters in Vietnam that he may ask the Philippine immigration bureau to include them in the barred list (of persona non grata characters).
The Philippine drug war itself appears to have won more support than disapproval from many leaders in the APEC and Asean meetings. President Duterte could sway the entire community to adopt a “drug free Asean” as a new regional objective.
The quandary of the human rights groups is no less acute. Trump and the White House did not notice their demands of Trump to address the human rights situation in the country. Trump told the media that his meeting with Duterte went well. Both presidents ignored shouted media questions whether they discussed the human rights issue.
The human rights groups have expressed dismay at Trump’s public silence, because they hoped that the spotlight on the US President would cast a glow on human rights.
What will they do now with Trump’s rebuff?
The Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch has declared: “In the old days, we used to call on the US government to raise human rights issues during these trips.” But given Trump’s refusal to play the game, HRW will just pivot to a different tack—focusing on international attention.
Without publicity, the human rights brouhaha cannot breathe.