MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he was ready to defend his bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, which has sparked U.S. and international concerns, when he meets with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of an Asian summit next week.
Duterte said he would demand that he be allowed to first explain the context of his crackdown before engaging Obama in a discussion of the widespread deaths. The two will meet for the first time on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Western leaders in Laos.
Nearly 1,800 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed since July 1, and U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in Washington on Monday that Obama plans to raise U.S. concerns over the killings with Duterte.
“They must understand the problem first before we talk about human rights,” Duterte told a news conference. “I would insist, ‘Listen to me. This is what the problem is.’ Then we can talk. No problem.”
Speaking at Manila’s international airport, Duterte warned more than 120 Filipino workers who returned after they were laid off in Saudi Arabia to stay away from illegal drugs.
“Avoid drugs at all costs because it could cost your life too,” Duterte said, adding that more than 3 million Filipinos are drug addicts.
Criticism by the U.S. government, U.N. rights experts and human rights groups over the drugs killings have provoked angry outbursts from Duterte, who, at one point, threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the U.N.
Duterte said that the world body and the U.S. have failed to prevent genocidal killings in Africa and the Middle East but criticize his crackdown, which targets hardcore criminals who destroy Philippine society.
The U.S. has expressed concern over the extrajudicial killings and urged Duterte’s government to ensure law enforcement efforts comply with human rights obligations.
“We are concerned by these detentions, as well as the extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected to be involved in drug activity in the Philippines,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said. “We strongly urge the Philippines to ensure its law enforcement efforts comply with its human rights obligations.”
She added: “We believe in rule of law. We believe in due process. We believe in respect for universal human rights. We believe, fundamentally, that those aspects ensure and promote long-term security.”
Duterte has had an uneasy relationship with America and has said he will chart a foreign policy that is not dependent on the U.S., his country’s longtime treaty ally. Duterte has also tried to repair relations with China that have been strained over escalating territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that while Obama values U.S. relations and cooperation with the Philippines on a variety of issues, he “is certainly not going to pull any punches in raising well-documented and relevant concerns when it comes to human rights” when he and Duterte meet.
When asked by reporters about the prospects of meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Laos, Duterte said he wanted that.
“I like Putin better,” Duterte said, adding “we’re alike.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.