VIENTIANE, Laos – President Barack Obama canceled a meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had publicly warned him not to raise questions about alleged death squad operations in his country against suspected drug dealers.
Earlier in the day, Duterte said that if Obama were to raise the issue during their scheduled meeting during an international gathering in Laos, “son of a bitch, I will swear at you.” Some news outlets are reporting that Duterte actually said “son of a whore” instead. Duterte spoke at a news conference before leaving the Philippines for a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders.
He is a leader of a sovereign country and is answerable only to the Filipino people, Duterte said, and Obama must be respectful.
More than 2,000 alleged drug dealers and users have been killed since Duterte launched a war on drugs upon taking office June 30.
Asked about Duterte’s remarks, Obama said he had told his staff to investigate whether a meeting with the Philippine president would still be “productive.”
A few hours later, as Obama reached Laos, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price announced that the meeting with Duterte had been canceled. Obama will, instead, meet with the president of South Korea, Price said. Obama said he had not heard Duterte’s remarks, but that aides had briefed him and that clearly the Philippines leader is a “colorful guy.”
At a news conference in China, where he attended an international economic meeting before heading to Laos, Obama said he had asked U.S. officials to determine if the meeting of Southeast Asian leaders “is in fact a time when we can have some constructive, productive conversations” with Duterte.
The Philippines is a U.S. ally and strategic partner in U.S. policy in Asia. The U.S. has given the Philippines strong backing in that country’s dispute with China over maritime boundaries.
But even when meeting with the leader of an allied country, Obama said, “I always want to make sure that if I have a meeting, it’s productive.”
Fighting drug trafficking is “tough,” Obama said, but the U.S. will always assert the need to have due process “and to engage in that fight against drugs in a way that’s consistent with basic international norms.”
“If and when we have a meeting, this is something that’s going to be brought up,” Obama said.
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