THE biggest snub in the concluded meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wasn’t the British Broadcasting Corp.’s failure (or refusal) to interview a blogger known to support most of President Rodrigo Duterte’s agenda. That was just a minor misunderstanding that can be remedied.
The bigger snub that gained less attention than it should have was courtesy of the host country itself. But who did we, with our well-earned reputation for hospitality and friendliness, brush off? On Monday night, when ASEAN leaders met with the United Nations (UN), President Rodrigo Duterte absented himself from the proceedings and, instead, sent Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
Now, unlike President Duterte, the foreign affairs secretary has spoken to the UN before about the administration’s campaign against illegal drugs. As recently as September, Cayetano, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, defended the campaign against illegal drugs as “a necessary instrument to preserve and protect the human rights of all Filipinos.”
There was very little the President could tell the UN that its officials hadn’t heard before. Except perhaps this important detail: despite all the questions raised about the so-called “war on drugs,” public support for it from Filipinos remains high. Just a few days before Cayetano’s speech at the UN, in fact, the US-based Pew Research Center reported that when it polled some 1,000 adult Filipinos from Feb. 26 to May 8, 2017, about 78 percent said they “approved of President Duterte’s handling of illegal drugs.” At least 62 percent of the same group believed that government “is making progress in the campaign against illegal drugs.”
Had he attended Monday’s meeting, President Duterte would have had the opportunity to defend, before an audience that included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres himself, his administration’s priorities, as well as raise an appeal for ASEAN’s human rights record to be assessed on the region’s own terms. The foreign affairs department’s explanation—that President Duterte’s bilateral meetings with Japan, South Korea, India, and Russia had kept him from that evening’s event—fails to persuade. After the years of hard work that went into gaining our seat at the table, why should avoidable scheduling conflicts keep us away from it?
“Talking about human rights has to be done in an honest and frank way, but it has to be done,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked on Tuesday, in a press briefing. “We have to talk about the high expectations we must have to protect life, to uphold the rule of law and human rights, knowing that there is always more work to do.” Presidential advisers, take note: that’s how it’s done.