Trump's fondness for strongmen trumps rights concerns

Dave Clark
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US President Donald Trump's latest embrace of strongmen leaders shows he still has the power to shock

US President Donald Trump makes no secret of his empathy for strongmen with spotty rights records, but his embrace of Rodrigo Duterte shows he still has the power to shock.

Trump has invited the Philippines leader to Washington, despite his unabashed support for an alleged police and vigilante campaign of mass murder against drugs suspects.

Seeking support for moves to isolate North Korea's Kim Jong-un -- branded by Trump a "smart cookie" but not yet himself on the White House guest list -- the US president's diplomacy has proved unsqueamish.

After Duterte, he also invited Thailand junta chief Prayut Chan-o-Cha to visit, effectively ending US efforts to maintain a discreet public distance from the autocratic regime.

These latest invitations fit a pattern that has outraged human rights defenders and given pause to even some of usually hardheaded realists in the Washington foreign policy set.

Although allegations of election interference has forced Trump to distance himself from Moscow, he campaigned for office last year on a platform of respect for Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

And, since his poll victory, Trump's affections have sifted to another autocrat, China's Xi Jinping, a "very respected man" he hopes will lead efforts to rein in North Korea.

Last month, Trump welcomed Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House and hailed the "fantastic job" the strongman was doing in leading his troubled country.

And he called Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on a referendum to consolidate power that observers said was marred not a fair vote.

But the open hand Trump has offered to the outspoken Duterte -- who famously branded Trump's predecessor Barack Obama a "son of a whore" -- still came as a surprise to many.

Duterte came to office in June last year promising to tackle drug trafficking by repeating the hardline police tactics he had employed as mayor of the city of Davao.

The results of this strategy were detailed in the annual human rights report released by Trump's own top diplomat Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March.

"Since July, police and unknown vigilantes have killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users as the government pursued a policy aimed at eliminating illegal drug activity," the report said.

"Extrajudicial killings have been the chief human rights concern in the country for many years and they increased sharply over the past year."

- Street slaughter -

Rights groups also report thousands of deaths in an allegedly orchestrated campaign -- and Duterte himself has made no effort to disguise his support for the killings.

Nevertheless, Trump spoke with Duterte on Saturday and, in the words of the White House, "greatly enjoyed" a chat with a leader moving ties in a "positive direction."

Faced with criticism of this cheerful embrace of a man accused of a crime against humanity, officials said moves against North Korea and the broader US national interest come first.

Trump's domestic opponents didn't flinch.

Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Trump to rescind the invitation in light of Duterte's "flagrant disregard for human life and due process."

Engel was unconvinced the Philippines role in the North Korea standoff was such that a blind eye could be turned "when thousands of Filipinos are being slaughtered in the streets at President Duterte's direction."

Of course, this is far from the first time Washington has cosied up to a notorious autocrat in the service of its perceived greater interest.

Obama did not break ties with Duterte, whom he admitted was a "colorful guy," and his administration maintained ties with Egypt's Sisi despite his seizure of power.

For decades during the Cold War, the United States propped up and supported some of the world's worst dictators for as long as they maintained anti-Communist credentials.

But throughout, the United States maintained at least a pretense of virtue -- a veneer that rights defenders argue was important and which is now under threat.

Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, complained that Trump had given Duterte "an unconditional bear hug."

"It's a message that the US no longer cares about human rights," he told AFP.

"Although regrettably the United States has not always walked the walk, supporting human rights at home and abroad, it has always robustly talked the talk on this."