U.S. Allies Take Moral Lead On Human Rights Where Trump Falls Short

He didn't mention the human rights atrocities once during his 12-day Asia trip.

President Donald Trump failed to speak out about two of Asia’s biggest humanitarian crises ― the ethnocentric violence in Myanmar and the alleged extrajudicial killings in the Phillippines ― during his 12-day visit to the area, even as some of America’s closest allies delivered strongly worded responses.

In a statement released on Monday, the White House said that Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte discussed the crisis in Myanmar during their meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Manila. Trump did not make public remarks about the intensifying violence enveloping Myamnar’s Rakhine state, which has forced more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslim people to flee their homes into Bangladesh. He also didn’t give any indication that he spoke to Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, about the conflict.

“Both leaders called for the expeditious delivery of humanitarian assistance to affected communities, and welcomed the Myanmar government’s commitment to end the violence, restore media access, ensure the safe return of displaced persons, and implement all of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and urged all parties to support these government commitments,” the statement said.

The White House also said that the two leaders spoke about human rights, though a spokesman for Duterte, who has allegedly ordered thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of his war on drugs, denied that. Duterte also shot down questions from reporters on the subject.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was also in Manila, said he had a “firm” discussion with Duterte on Tuesday about the alleged human rights abuses. He also met with Suu Kyi last week to call for a “sustainable and just solution” to the Rohingya crisis. 

“Canada has earned a reputation for being able to have strong and frank, sometimes firm, discussions around the rule of law and human rights with its partners. It’s very much what people expect of Canada and it comes as no surprise when we bring it up,” Trudeau said. “The president was receptive to my comments, and it was, throughout, a cordial and positive exchange.”

Trudeau said he would nominate a Canadian special envoy to the region to “engage in diplomatic efforts, and identify ways in which Canada can support the response to the situation and the plight of the Rohingya minority.”

Austalian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, also in Manila, said he spoke to Suu Kyi directly on Tuesday to express his concerns with the refugee crisis.

In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday night condemned the “inhuman” treatment of the Rohingya people, which she said “looks like ethnic cleansing.”

“It is something for which the Burmese authorities ― and especially the military ― must take full responsibility,” May said.

Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters
Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh November 10, 2017.

Human rights advocacy groups decried Trump’s missed opportunity.

“President Trump has spoken about his ability to talk tough with foreign leaders, and the ASEAN summit was a renewed opportunity to raise the horrifying human rights abuses that the region is facing,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Philippines researcher for Amnesty International. “It is very disappointing that President Trump appears to largely have ignored this opportunity, and instead stayed silent on the suffering of the Rohingya while in Asia.”

Government-backed forces have been accused of waging a brutal campaign against the minority group, including atrocities such as sexual assault, torture and indiscriminate killings. Satellite imagery has shown hundreds of Rohingya villages burned to the ground.

Trump has yet to speak about the crisis directly, so far only condemning the violence through intermediaries. 

Vice President Mike Pence said in September that Trump urged the United Nations Security Council to take “strong and swift action” to end the bloodshed. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said he was “very concerned.” “Everybody is trying to figure out who can move the officials in Burma,” she added.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to meet later this month with Suu Kyi, who has been chastised over her handling of the crisis, which she once blamed on “fake news.” 

The U.S. is said to be considering sanctions on Myanmar’s regime in response to the alleged crimes, and the State Department withdrew aid to the Burmese military last month. But Tillerson, who has repeatedly condemned the violence, has stopped short of labeling it as ethnic cleansing.