A coalition of Filipino and Canadian activists is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do what U.S. President Donald Trump seems loath to do: raise the "appalling" state of human rights in the southeast Asian country with its populist president, Rodrigo Duterte.
In a letter sent to Trudeau and subsequently shared with CBC News, groups from both the Philippines and Canada urged the prime minister to take the opportunity at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila to pressure Duterte to end his bloody crusade against alleged drug dealers and addicts that rights groups say has left at least 7,000 dead.
"This shocking number of killings is accompanied by what seems to be complete impunity for those responsible," the Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines says in the letter. "We are deeply troubled that the victims of this state-sponsored violence are predominantly from poor, vulnerable and marginalized sectors of Philippine society."
'Incumbent' on Canada to speak out
Duterte's aides say all such killings are legal acts of self-defence by police — or have been carried out by "vigilantes" with no ties to the president — and they vow to continue the anti-drug campaign until the end of his presidential term in 2022.
However, lawmakers from the European Union believe there are "credible reports" that the Philippine police force has been falsifying evidence "to justify extrajudicial killings."
According to the coalition, human rights activists are also the target of a "counter-insurgency war" that has claimed the lives of some 58 such people since Duterte took power in July 2016.
"President Duterte's hostile rhetoric about human rights defenders, combined with his encouragement of extrajudicial killings and guarantees of impunity, has resulted in a serious deterioration in the situation," the group says.
"We believe it is incumbent on the government of Canada to speak out more strongly against this violence."
The Canadian activists have aligned with the likes of Rise Up, a church-based group in the Philippines that supports victims — and families who have been killed — of the brutal crackdown. In an interview with CBC News, Nardy Sabino, one of the group's founders, said if Trudeau really cares about the well-being of Filipinos, he would throw diplomacy aside when he comes face to face with Duterte at ASEAN.
"Aside from getting chickenjoy [at Filipino fast-food favourite Jollibee] it's better for Mr. Trudeau to raise the extrajudicial killings," he said, referencing the prime minister's impromptu stop at the popular chain restaurant.
"Even if Duterte is not willing to listen, it's an obligation of other leaders to show their concern, their compassion, at the very least."
Liberals say no time for bilateral meeting
During his bilateral meeting with Duterte in Manila, Trump ignored questions from reporters about the state of human rights in the Philippines, and laughed when the Philippine president called journalists "spies."
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Trump said he had a "great relationship" with his Philippine counterpart, who has been called the Trump of the East for his brash style and provocative language. "This has been very successful. And the ASEAN conference has been handled beautifully by the president in the Philippines," he said.
Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesperson, told a news conference that Duterte had explained his anti-drugs policy at length to Trump, who "seemed to be appreciative of his efforts."
"There was no mention of human rights, no mention of extra-legal killings," he said.
Duterte maintains tough police action — eliminating crime by eliminating criminals — is necessary to restore order in a country that has seen a surge in drug-related violence.
Before being elected president, Duterte foreshadowed his crime-fighting intentions.
"If by chance that God will place me there, watch out, because 1,000 [people allegedly executed when he was mayor of Davao City] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you," he said.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said while Canada has "serious concerns" about alleged human rights violations and the legality of Duterte's actions, it's uncertain whether Trudeau will have the chance to speak to the president one on one, as Duterte is busy with his hosting duties.
"This is not a bilateral trip to the Philippines — if we have the time, we'll raise this issue," she said, noting she already met with Filipino journalists and activists in the summer to encourage their work.
"We are supporting Filipino civil society in the questions that it is asking about some of the things that this government is doing," she said Sunday, adding that Canada is funding journalism courses for would-be reporters in the country.
When asked last year about the high murder rate among journalists in the country, Duterte said that being a reporter doesn't mean you are "exempted from assassination if you're a son of a bitch."
Activists are also calling on Trudeau to suspend "all support for and co-operation with" the armed forces of the Philippines and immediately end the sale of military and defence equipment to the Philippine government because, they say, the military is complicit in the killings. And they would like to see an independent fact-finding mission document and investigate the alleged extrajudicial killings.
Duterte says butt out
It is unlikely Duterte would take kindly to criticism from Trudeau on his handling of the drug war.
When asked by reporters last week, Duterte said he would tell any foreign leader to butt out of domestic matters.
"You want to ask a question, I'll give you an answer: Lay off. That is not your business. That is my business. I take care of my country and I will nurture my country to health," he said.
Canada was invited for the first time to act as an observer at the high-level East Asia summit, a forum for regional and global security discussions, by Duterte's administration. Publicly raising the issue of human rights could scuttle Canada's reliance on the Philippines as a trusted interlocutor in Southeast Asia.
But for Sabino, the human rights activist, relying on Duterte is a dangerous game. "He's definitely a tyrannical leader, whose leadership is going towards dictatorial governance."
Meeting with New Zealand PM
Trudeau also held a bilateral discussion with recently elected New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings.
Before the meeting began, Trudeau said he hoped they could dig deeper about their shared values, such as progressive trade, climate change, Indigenous issues and the development of international feminist policy.
Ardern's liberal Labour Party formed a government following New Zealand's September election and she was sworn in late last month.
"I'm going to put you in the awkward position of inviting you to New Zealand in front of the media, so it's on public record that I've done that," Ardern told a grinning Trudeau, as he nodded in acknowledgment.