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Trump Invites Philippines' President To White House, Despite Human Rights Record

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Obama administration had criticized the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines that are part of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, and now that President Trump has invited Duterte to the White House, we wanted to talk about how this turn in U.S. foreign policy is going over in the Philippines.

Earlier today we talked to Chito Gascon. He's the chair of the Philippines Human Rights Commission. That's an independent government organization in Manila. And I asked him what people are saying about Trump's invitation.

CHITO GASCON: For the most part, it's welcome by the general population. You know, Mr. Duterte remains significantly popular. Now, this invitation from the White House emboldens his followers, and it's welcomed quite significantly on the ground.

MCEVERS: What sort of message do you think it sends to Duterte's opponents that the president of the United States would like to host him?

GASCON: Well, certainly those of us who have been raising the issue of the growing human rights violations are concerned that this might send the wrong signal. Nonetheless, we understand that the United States does have a multiplicity of interests in the region. But we hope that this does not signal a U-turn from raising concerns on human rights.

MCEVERS: As I said, President Obama had criticized President Duterte, but that didn't seem to go very far. And Duterte once dismissed Obama with a very derogatory slur and soon after that announced a separation from the U.S. and a tilt toward China. Do you think President Trump, based on his actions so far, might have better luck at influencing your president?

GASCON: Perhaps. They're both populist leaders, and Mr. Duterte expressed soon after Mr. Trump had been elected that he liked Mr. Trump. So in that sense, on a personal rapport basis, they might hit it off, and Mr. Trump might be able to be an influence.

Of late, even across Southeast Asia, there's already talk among human rights groups in the region about what's referred to as the Duterte effect whereby what he's doing here might actually manifest itself in other countries in the region. So it's important that the West, the United States, Europe and other countries that value freedom, democracy and human rights to weight in and put pressure on Mr. Duterte to ensure that these values are protected and maintained in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.

MCEVERS: And you mentioned that President Duterte is fairly popular there in the Philippines. And we should say that his war on drugs is also still quite popular. Is that right?

GASCON: Unfortunately that's correct. He ran on a very strong law and order campaign. That's what got him elected. He has now over 80 percent support and approval rating. Nonetheless, we continue to call for his people, the police and prosecutors to uphold due processes, presumption of innocence and protect people from indiscriminate killing. We do need the help of the international community to ensure that these violations will ultimately ensure some form of justice down the road.

MCEVERS: Chito Gascon, chair of the Philippines Human Rights Commission, thank you very much.

GASCON: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL OLSEN SONG, "UNF**KTHEWORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.