Calling the kettle black


United States President Barack Obama is correct: the illegal drug problem is serious enough to merit the best efforts of governments everywhere to solve it. But those efforts must conform with human rights standards and due process, which are mandated in both the US and the Philippines by international as well as national laws. The Philippines is a signatory to, among others, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and has a Constitution, crafted to prevent the repetition of the bitter experience of the Martial Law period, that assures those accused of even the most heinous crimes of due process and the presumption of innocence.

Obama was reacting to the statements of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had declared, prior to his departure for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Laos, that the US has no business meddling in Philippine internal affairs.

Interviewed at the airport, Duterte had assumed, on the basis of US government statements, among them that of Press Secretary Josh Earnest that “the President (Obama) is certainly not going to pull any punches in raising well-documented and relevant concerns when it comes to human rights,” that Obama would take up with him the extrajudicial killings that have been happening in the country (over 2,000 as of last count) in connection with the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs.”

Duterte had plenty more to say. He also reminded everyone that the Philippines is “not a vassal state of the US,” that it has “long ceased to be a colony” of that country, and that he has no master except the Filipino people.

He followed that up with the usual expletive, which was wrongly reported as an “insult” to Obama, although Duterte later expressed regret for it. But it was the immediate reason why Obama canceled the meeting in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. (Obama said he didn’t think the meeting would be productive.)

Duterte also demanded an apology for the massacre of 600 men, women and children by US forces in 1906 in the course of the US’ “pacification” campaign in Mindanao. He did not mention the US military’s turning Samar into “a howling wilderness” by killing every male aged 10 and above in retaliation for the 1901 Balangiga town incident in which Filipino townsfolk and guerrillas killed a number of US troopers. (The bells of Balangiga church, seized as war booty by US forces, have yet to be returned.)

But it was nevertheless the first time that a sitting Philippine president had publicly criticized the US — and in such blunt terms. Every Philippine president from Manuel Roxas to Benigno Aquino III had either looked to the US as the country’s benign patron, been an outright lapdog, unquestioningly assumed US “guidance” and meddling in its affairs as natural — or all of the above. Only in the degree to which they were subservient to US economic, political, and strategic interests distinguished them from each other.

The reality is that while Obama, who described Duterte as “a colorful fellow,” was correct in insisting that the “war against drugs” must respect human rights and due process, Duterte was also right — and on several points.

The US indeed assumes that it has the prerogative to lecture other countries on human rights — and puts teeth into it through such means as muscle diplomacy and the outright use of force.

Former US state department analyst William Blum (in his essay “A Brief History of US Interventions: 1945 to the Present”) points out that from 1945 to 1999, the US intervened in the internal affairs of over 70 countries including the Philippines supposedly in behalf of democracy.

Those interventions in many instances consisted of removing even democratically-elected heads of state such as Joao Goulart of Brazil and Salvador Allende of Chile, and support for dictatorships which proceeded to arrest, torture, and murder oppositionists. US intervention from Afghanistan to Indonesia to Iran to Yugoslavia has been the vehicle for the violation of human rights and due process for more than a century.

In his book Rogue State, also written before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Blum had also chronicled how the US violated international law and even its own laws in behalf of “extending political and economic hegemony over as wide an area as possible.”

The US still allows “enhanced interrogation techniques” — i.e., torture even to the point of near-death — of suspected terrorists. It has detained in its Guantanamo prison dozens of such suspects for more than a decade without charges being filed against them, and still practices “rendition,” which consists of turning over suspected terrorists to other countries where they can be tortured.

Obama himself, in violation of international and US conventions including the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and has authorized more drone attacks than his predecessor George W. Bush, resulting in the death of dozens of individuals suspected of terrorism and their families and neighbors. In one such attack, an entire funeral cortege was blown to bits by “Hellfire” missiles launched from a drone (an unmanned aircraft).

Within the US itself, the election of Obama as the first black US president in history notwithstanding, the killing by militarized police forces of black men and even children on the basis of racial profiling (the assumption that blacks are likely to be criminals) and mere suspicion has been happening to such an almost predictable extent that it has become a major concern in the African American community.

These aside, Duterte’s most valid points, which his predecessors have either forgotten or never quite learned, is that the Philippines is a sovereign state, and, for its double standard of demanding human rights and due process of other countries while ignoring these at its convenience, the US is hardly the model other countries should take “advice” from, much less emulate.

But while Duterte is right in that he is indeed not answerable to the US, he is nevertheless accountable to the Filipino people, whom he names as his only master. The Filipino people include those suspected of involvement in the drug trade as well as those who use drugs to escape the drudgeries and miseries of poverty, but who, without due process and any regard for their rights as human beings, are being killed extrajudicially in violation of international protocols, the Philippine Constitution, and common human decency.

Every country has the right to decide how to deal with its problems. No country, no matter how powerful, can claim that right, especially one as artfully hypocritical as the US. But one cannot call the kettle black while being himself as dark.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
Sept. 9, 2016

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