MANILA, Philippines — A U.S.-based human rights group says President Donald Trump should not roll out the White House red carpet for Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, whom it accused of being a "mastermind" of mass murder because of his anti-drug crackdown in which thousands have died.
Human Rights Watch and other critics reacted with alarm Monday at Trump's invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. In a telephone call, Trump also affirmed America's alliance and friendship with the Philippines and its president, who has maintained an antagonistic stance toward U.S. security policies.
The U.S. and other countries close to the Philippines "have an obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte's abusive drug war, rather than offer to roll out the red carpet for official state visits with its mastermind," said Phelim Kine, HRW's deputy director for Asia.
Kine said Trump may damage human rights by making overly friendly overtures to Duterte, who is facing a complaint for alleged mass murder before the International Criminal Court.
Trump will cut a "bad deal" for the American and Filipino people if he fetes Duterte with a White House reception without assessing the implications "of hosting and toasting a foreign leader whose links to possible crimes against humanity for instigating and inciting extrajudicial killings has already prompted warnings from the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court," Kine said in an email.
Duterte has said his administration does not back extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death and violence in nationally televised speeches. Duterte's spokesman, Ernie Abella, did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday.
Duterte said he has not accepted the invitation because of scheduled trips to Russia, Israel and other countries.
"I'm tied up," he told reporters Monday in southern Davao city. "I cannot make any definite promise."
U.S. and Philippine officials said Trump's calls and invitations to several Asian allies including Duterte were aimed at discussing the crisis over North Korea's nuclear threats.
In his phone conversation with Trump, Duterte said he relayed the region's alarm over the North Korean standoff.
"I said Mr. President, I do not think that you can scare (North Korean leader) Kim Jung Un with fire power," Duterte said. "Our greatest chance there of getting some dialogue with America and North Korea would be through the intercession of China."
Abella said in a statement that "the discussion that transpired between the presidents was warm, with President Trump expressing his understanding and appreciation of the challenges facing the Philippine president, especially on the matter of dangerous drugs."
A White House statement described the call as "very friendly" and said the U.S.-Philippine alliance "is now heading in a very positive direction."
Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said friendlier ties are needed, even with concerns about Duterte's human rights record, citing the North Korean threat.
"The purpose of this call is all about North Korea," Priebus told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "It doesn't mean that human rights don't matter."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said Monday he hopes Trump will send a "very clear and undiluted message" to Duterte, but stopped short of calling for the meeting to be cancelled .
"The Philippine president has gone on record claiming that he perpetrated homicide when in a previous capacity he launched a campaign against those involved allegedly in the drug trade," he said to reporters in Geneva.
"My hope is that the president of the United States will convey this deep sense of alarm about the apparent shirking of the obligations under the law — to subject any alleged violator of the law to the normal process that should be undertaken," Zeid said. "We will wait to see what comes out of that meeting, but I hope the message will be very clear and firm on this."
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
Jim Gomez, The Associated Press