US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to raise US human rights concerns in Philippines

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Files) Top News

The Philippines said Friday that it respects human rights and welcomes the opportunity to address the United States’ concerns about its human rights record – a topic expected to be raised by US State Secretary Rex Tillerson when he visits Manila this week for Asia’s biggest security forum.

Tillerson will raise all relevant issues in the US alliance with the Philippines, including concerns about human rights, Acting US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said in Washington on Wednesday. She said a meeting with Duterte is being arranged.

A Department of Foreign Affairs statement said the Philippines understands it is part of U.S. officials’ duty to talk about human rights with the Philippines and the rest of the world because they are accountable to their Congress and their press. “We share the belief that no country has a perfect human rights situation,” it added. “We welcome the opportunity to address their concerns and correct the perceptions they may have gleaned from exaggerated media reports.” The statement said the Philippines “is the oldest democracy in Asia and respect for human rights is a shared valued especially with its treaty ally, the United States.”

Discussions on human rights are always included in Philippine engagements with foreign governments particularly with Western democracies, it added. Duterte, however, has lashed out at critics of his war on illegal drugs, which has left thousands of suspects dead in the past year. When then-U.S. President raised concerns about the mounting death toll, Duterte told the president to “go to hell.”

Thornton said Tillerson’s trip to Manila will provide a chance for a robust bilateral program with the Philippines on the sidelines of the security meetings. She said there will be much to talk about, including a siege by Islamic State group-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi and growing threats of international terrorism. “But certainly, we will be talking about governance, about human rights issues, and about how we can increase our economic and other kinds of people-to-people engagement with the Philippines,” she added.

Duterte’s spokesperson, Esrnesto Abella, said no announcement has been made yet of a meeting between Tillerson and Duterte.

Human rights advocates have accused Duterte of unleashing “a human rights calamity” with his war on drugs. They say his recent threat to bomb tribal schools he accused of teaching students to become communist rebels could constitute war crimes, prompting Duterte to clarify that the schools would only be bombed when the buildings are empty.

Amnesty International has urged the United States to restrict assistance to the Philippine national police and to link future aid to progress in reforms and ending the impunity of officers who commit or oversee unlawful killings. It has called for support for Philippine human rights defenders’ efforts to document atrocities, fight for accountability and promote an approach based on public health instead of punitive action.

More than 5,200 drug suspects have died so far, including more than 3,000 in reported gunbattles with police and more than 2,000 others in drug-related attacks by motorcycle-riding masked gunmen and other assaults, police said. Human rights groups have reported a higher toll and called for an independent investigation into Duterte’s possible role in the violence.

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