Angelo Lafuente’s family would have good reason to be dismayed by President Trump’s “very friendly conversation” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
It’s not likely that the conversation, in which Trump invited the Philippine President to the White House, included discussion of Duterte’s murderous tactics in the “war on drugs.” Philippine National Police statistics indicate has killed of over 7,000 mostly poor urban Filipinos, including Lafuente.
Lafuente encountered Duterte’s drug war on August 18, according to Human Rights Watch, when a police anti-drug raid swept through the neighborhood in Manila’s Navotas district, where the 23-year-old small appliances repairman lived and worked.
Four armed men in civilian clothes, accompanied by two uniformed policemen, escorted Lafuente away in a marked white police van. Hours later, police at the Navotas police station presented Lafuente’s panic-stricken family members with photos of his bullet-ridden body. The police report attributes his death to “unknown” gunmen and omits any mention that he was last seen alive in police custody.
The circumstances surrounding Lafuente’s death are all too common in the Philippines today. Research by Human Rights Watch exposed a damning pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over summary executions.
Police claim responsibility for 2,717 of the deaths – all justified, they assert – but the rest appear to have been carried out by police-backed agents or “death squads.” The official numbers of suspected drug users and dealers killed doesn’t even include the victims Duterte calls “collateral damage” – including children killed by stray police bullets.
Trump’s implicit support for Duterte’s anti-drug campaign suggests a stunning apathy toward its brutal reality. Trump’s failure to express concern about the drug war’s death toll and his airbrushing of that bloodshed as a legitimate anti-drug operation is more than a grievous insult to injury for family members of victims. Trump is also betraying the few Filipinos courageous enough to speak out against the drug war, notably wrongfully-jailed Senator Leila de Lima, a longtime rights advocate.
Trump’s open-armed embrace of Duterte also contradicts the wider US government response to the drug war. In November 2016, the US State Department suspended the sale of 26,000 military assault rifles to the Philippine National Police because of congressional opposition due to “concerns about human rights violations in the Philippines.” In December 2016, the US Embassy in Manila announced that the US government would defer a decision to provide the Philippine government a new Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant due to "significant concerns around rule of law and civil liberties in the Philippines."
The statement specified that criteria for MCC recipients “includes not just a passing scorecard but also a demonstrated commitment to the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights.”
These responses are models for how foreign governments should respond to Duterte’s abusive drug war. A critical mass of foreign governments that restrict funding and technical assistance to the Philippine National Police and other agencies implicated in the drug war can impose a cost for that abusive behavior that even Duterte might find difficult to ignore.
Trump’s praise for repressive leaders such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan make it unlikely he’ll lead the charge against Duterte’s drug war. But Trump is just one part of the US government. The US Congress can deny assistance to the Philippine security forces by imposing specific human rights benchmarks, including requiring Duterte to end the killings and allow a United Nations-led investigation into those deaths. The Philippine government has consistently blocked efforts by the United Nations special rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, to conduct a fact-finding mission into the drug war death toll. And Congress can direct the Secretary of State to work with other foreign governments to impose similar restrictions.
A bipartisan group of senators is already working on a piece of legislation aimed to send a message to Duterte that his drug war must stop. That legislation, co-sponsored by US Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, seeks to restrict arms sales and assistance to the Philippine National Police, strengthen civil society, and support a public health approach to substance abuse. Cardin has described the legislation as necessary “to make it clear to President Duterte that there will be consequences for his barbaric actions.” It will likely be introduced in the coming days.
Despite Trump’s “friendly” engagement with Duterte, the US government has opportunities to help end the bloodshed of Duterte’s drug war and bring about meaningful moves toward accountability. Angelo Lafuente and the thousands of other victims deserve no less.