President Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia has him schmoozing with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. But unlike President Obama, who made a point of using his trips to regions with dodgy rights records to assert America’s moral soft power in the world, Trump has no intention of embarrassing his hosts or other regional leaders by insisting anyone hew to a specific line on human rights.
“How much does it help to yell about these problems,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told the press on Thursday. “What the president is doing is being effective.”
McMaster’s comment was meant to imply that the president may be speaking about human rights in quiet, backroom conversations, rather than from the bully pulpit. But human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long believed shouting is effective. Hushing up horrors has not helped them get resolved. Yelling about them, on the other hand, has.
Despite the administration’s assurance that human rights is not high on the agenda, there are major regional abuses that the human rights community is hoping the president will weigh in on during the whirlwind trip to five countries. First are the more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, carried out by President Rodrigo Duterte’s government as part of his war on drugs.
Another is the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Myanmar, where that country’s military campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority has led to an exodus of 600,000 Rohingya since August 25. Finally, China and Vietnam have also long been a source of American concern, particularly with regard to political prisoners.
On November 2, Amnesty International even issued a five-page letter to the president, which was provided to Vox. It was a wish list of issues the organization would have liked him to focus on, including the Rohingya, the killings in the Philippines, and a slew of political prisoners whose heartbreaking stories humanize the plight of all those incarcerated for ideas.
There’s a reason they’re trying.
“It is extremely important that President Trump — or anyone else with that kind of stature — uses their position in the global community to say and take a stand,” Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial or arbitrary executions at the UN’s High Commission on Human Rights, told me last week. She called it an issue of setting a “moral benchmark.”
The Donald Trump of the East
Trump is scheduled to travel to the Philippines and meet strongman Rodrigo Duterte in person on Sunday, November 12, a man the White House has explicitly noted that Trump has a “warm rapport with.” That warmth aside, it’s a meeting that human rights activists from the United Nations to Human Rights Watch hope will include a condemnation of the ghastly toll exacted by Duterte’s war on drugs.
During Duterte’s run for president in spring 2016, he earned the reputation “Trump of the East” because he’s a brash-talking populist. But he’s far more extreme than the American president. He came into office on the back of a brutal reputation as mayor of the Philippine city Davao. During the campaign he made a nauseating joke about gang rape and spoke of using death squads to keep order.
Once in office, his bluster turned to deadly action. Promising to fix the Philippines’s drug problem, Duterte greenlit the Philippine National Police to kill drug users and drug sellers on the street in a Wild West-style crack down on illegal substances. Human Rights Watch estimated that by February 2017, 7,000 people had been killed extrajudicially (in other words, without due process, or any process at all). Of that number, 2,555 were killed by the Philippine National Police. The vast majority of those killed were impoverished city dwellers.
In Amnesty International’s November 2 open letter to the president, the organization urged the US to step up its pressure on Duterte to end the killings and not be afraid to wield the country’s need for US aid (the Philippines receives the largest sum of US aid in East Asia) as a stick.
“I would hope that [Trump] would remind the president of the Philippines about the human rights obligation of his country,” Callamard told me. “l hope that he will remind him that the dehumanizing a group of individuals on the basis of their alleged use of drugs is very dangerous for society.”
Callamard noted that linking drug addiction with criminality is problematic, to say the least, and that Duterte is empowering an organization, the Philippine police force, that is prone to corruption. “There is a very clear risk of undermining, if not destroying, the rule of law,” she said of the indiscriminate killings. She noted that the deaths are unlawful, and that thus far, no one has been brought to justice on the victims’ behalf.
Changing the language on the Rohingya
Trump won’t actually be going to Myanmar on this trip. But the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the country is a high concern in Asia. It will more than likely be a topic of conversation at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) conference, which rounds out Trump’s trip.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims — 60 percent of whom are children — have fled for the border of Bangladesh since the end of August because of a systematic pattern of organized violence carried out by the Myanmar military. The refugees carry with them unfathomable stories of mass shootings, murdered babies, whole villages burned to the ground, and gang rape. The widespread violence led the world to call upon leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn her military; she has not only failed to do so but has questioned the very need to do so.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres designated the atrocities as ethnic cleansing back on September 13. French President Emmanuel Macron called Myanmar’s actions a genocide on September 20. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called the atrocities crimes against humanity.
But the United States has yet to do so. In Amnesty International’s pre-trip letter, the organization urged the president to raise the Rohingya crisis as a human rights priority during his trip. They also called upon him “to impose a comprehensive arms embargo and targeted financial sanctions against senior Myanmar military officials responsible for crimes against humanity.”
On November 3, Human Rights Watch urged the UN Security Council to bring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. “Justice is desperately needed for the Rohingya population targeted by the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing,” Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director, said in a statement.
UNICEF representative Sakil Faizullah described to me via Skype the drawings of the children in the refugee camps from the Bangladesh border. “They are drawing bullets being shot. They are drawing helicopters flying over and they are drawing fire," he told me. “With green crayon they are drawing human figures, and with red crayon they are drawing blood marks.”
Trump will be expected to weigh in on the problem. The very language the United States uses to condemn the violence, and our actions as a result, will be under enormous scrutiny.
Political prisoners are languishing in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia
Trump has had some of his best times as president with leaders whose countries house the most political dissidents. He’s happily partied with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China, with nary a public word to the plight of dissidents in those countries. (Though, to be fair, he did help free an Egyptian American earlier this spring, a coup for the early days of his presidency.)
And the leaders of those countries have noticed. Last week, Reuters reported that Chinese diplomats are “relieved” that Trump isn’t all that concerned with human rights.
The very day that Liu Xiabo, one of China’s most well-known dissidents, died this July, Trump effusively praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping, calling him a “friend” who wants to “do what’s right for China.” Those comments were widely condemned by human rights activists.
To be sure, President Obama was condemned in 2015 for similarly buttering up Xi, throwing him a lavish state dinner, even as the Chinese government was in the midst of a crackdown critics were calling the worst since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
But those advocating on behalf of specific prisoners are still hoping that Trump will raise the plight of Chinese dissidents during his visit to Beijing at the end of the week. The Taiwanese, ABC News reported on Monday, would like the president to bring up the case of Lee Ming-che, a 42-year-old pro-democracy activist who vanished in March and reappeared in September in court. He stands accused of using social media to proselytize to mainland Chinese about Taiwan’s multi-party system. He has also worked on behalf of political prisoners. He faces a 10-year jail sentence.
Human rights defenders are also calling for the release of poet Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, and Li Yuhan, a lawyer accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” who has not seen her family in her month of detention. Xia’s case has been championed by writers from PEN America, including Chimamanda Adichie, Margaret Atwood, and Chang-rae Lee — all of whom wrote to Xi this week, urging him to take up her case.
But Trump’s focus on “America First,” human rights watchers say, means he is loath to deviate from conversations on trade and North Korean aggression. Which means when it comes to human rights, there will be no yelling.