World leaders gathered in Manila earlier this month for the Twelfth East Asia Summit, the first to be attended by a Canadian prime minister. While the Summit presented an opportunity for Justin Trudeau to leverage economic ties in the Asia-Pacific, many also wondered how and if he would take advantage of his facetime with the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, to address his bloody war on drugs. As it turns out, his approach to diplomacy did not go far enough in pushing for human rights.
There is clear reason to act. The state-supported extrajudicial killings of drug users and dealers in the Philippines have claimed the lives of over 12,000 individuals. With reports alleging that these killings are being carried out by Philippine police officers, masked vigilantes, and now the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), these killings eliminate the accused without so much as a hint of a trial and due process. Making no effort to hide his approval, Duterte most recently bragged about killing a person at age 16 “just over a look” at a press conference in Vietnam. Though his domestic support has dropped dramatically in recent months, the leader was nevertheless greeted enthusiastically by a voting population that was sick of the inaction shown by previous regimes.
Trudeau’s U.S. counterpart, President Donald Trump, has also yet to take concrete action. Congress and the U.S. State Department both denounce Duterte’s extrajudicial killings, and suggest that independent investigations should be conducted. But Trump’s fostering of a “great relationship” with the populist leader involves no such mention of human rights concerns. Critics of Duterte were not impressed with the jokes about journalist spies, love song serenades, and ASEAN handshake fails that made headlines instead of human rights abuses. But many were not surprised, given Trump’s property interests in Manila and previous courtships with the likes of Putin, al-Sisi, and King Salman.
The delicacy of the situation is all too apparent given ‘Trump of the East’s’ history of berating critics of his regime’s brutality. His last meeting with Barack Obama ended on a sour note, with Duterte defending his country’s right to sovereignty and calling the former President a “son of a bitch” when prompted about his war on drugs. Similarly, though Trudeau reported having productive conversations on human rights with both Duterte and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Duterte quickly retorted that it was a “personal and official insult,” and that he would only answer on matters of his own country to the fishermen and farmers living in it.
Was Trudeau’s decision to only briefly touch on human rights the right diplomatic approach? Many would argue that Canada is not taking a big economic risk by advancing human rights, noting that we already run a trade deficit with the Philippines and that the greatest share of our immigrant population currently hails from the country. In light of his glowing UN address committing to revamped human rights efforts at home, Trudeau owes the people of the Philippines and Filipino-Canadians similar considerations. Showing recent diplomatic muscle by delaying the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), he should be equally confident in his government’s ability to demand better human rights from even the most colourful of leaders.
The Summit was a missed opportunity for Trudeau to advocate for human rights, but his actions at home have seen progress. While it is far from perfect, the Canadian approach to drug addiction is becoming more human rights-driven. With the forthcoming legalization of cannabis and the growing prevalence of safe injection sites across the country, Canadian policy is moving away from stigmatizing drug users.Policy approaches are finally beginning to address the roots of addiction, looking to break the cycle that has fed into the deadly fentanyl crisis.
Rather than leave Duterte with a few stern parting words, Trudeau could have highlighted what his country is doing to help people with drug addictions. This would have brought tangible solutions to the table for a leader who normally plays off of emotions and uses extreme measures to enforce his lethal policies.