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Undiplomatic language exposes the mother of all war criminals

Image of US President Barack Obama [Reuters/Jonathan Ernst]
Image of US President Barack Obama [Reuters/Jonathan Ernst]

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but when Barack Obama looked down his nose at the President of the Philippines over his questionable record on human rights, it was still surprising to hear that Rodrigo Duterte called the US leader a "son of a whore".

This was the sort of language one would expect to hear in a bar room brawl and not at an international gathering of world leaders. Duterte's insult led to Obama cancelling a scheduled meeting with his outspoken Filipino counterpart while the pair were in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, for a gathering of the Association of South-East Asian Nations last week.

However, looking at the cold, hard facts, there are those who will have a degree of sympathy with the odious Duterte, who was elected in May on an anti-crime platform and has the sort of popularity ratings — around 90 per cent — that Obama can only dream of. The truth is, little separates Duterte's brutal domestic policies with Obama's foreign policies; they both see a problem and throw bombs, missiles and bullets at it in the belief that it will simply go away as a result.

Instead of insulting the US president's mother, though, it would have been more appropriate — and accurate — for Duterte to call Obama a hypocrite. The Filipino politician swept to power after he promised to rid Manila of drug dealers and their illicit business. His crime initiative, for want of a better word, has seen the killing of more than 2,400 people suspected of being involved in the deadly trade. Thousands more, meanwhile, have been killed in operations sanctioned by Obama, who went to war with suspected Islamic militants and terrorists when he arrived in the White House.

Neither Duterte nor Obama have chosen to go through the legal channels of evidence-gathering, arrest, charge, trial, judge and jury to determine the guilt or innocence of the suspects. Extrajudicial killings, in fact, have almost become normalised, as has the use of drones, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. In short, Obama could be the mother of all war criminals, given the number of innocent people who have been killed along the way.

This is, no doubt, why other governments, such as Israel's, for example, feel emboldened to shoot first and ask questions later; that policy is illustrated by the annual death toll of Palestinian civilians. In December last year, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem slammed the country's "excessive and unwarranted use of lethal gunfire" as its forces killed seven Palestinians in one week, and a woman died of her injuries after being shot at a West Bank checkpoint. When it comes to larger scale operations, like its offensives against the Palestinians in Gaza, Israel appears to have no compunction whatsoever about dropping bombs on civilian populations, their schools, hospitals and places of worship.

It is the sort of rough justice that the population of Yemen is enduring at the moment as British bombs bought and used by Saudi Arabia are dropped routinely on hospitals, maternity units and playgrounds, while US drones unleash hell-fire missiles on suspected militants who often hide out in civilian areas. All of these suspected war crimes also make it increasingly difficult to rein-in the Assad regime in Syria, which is assisted ably by the Russians, from its blitzing of civilian areas with barrel bombs and chemical warfare.

The global descent into lawlessness began decades ago and accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11. As we approach the 15th anniversary of that atrocity, the harsh reality is that if we are to call Obama the "son of a whore", then there a lots more Obamas around the world today sitting in positions of power, abusing their authority and showing no respect for humanity or international law.

Back in the Philippines, Duterte seems determined to continue with his domestic policies without restraint. "More people will be killed, plenty will be killed until the last [drug] pusher is out of the streets," he warned Agence-France Presse a few days ago. He also pledged to "eat" members of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group in the country's southern islands following the bombing of his home town, for which the group claimed responsibility.

Elsewhere, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told a group of high school students in Egypt that the killing of Palestinian children is not terrorism. On seeing their disbelief at his statement, he defended his views by saying that different countries use the word terrorism in different ways. His sophistry fails to convince anyone.

In the old days, when the United Nations had authority, international law was respected and state leaders took human rights seriously (hard to believe, but many did), killing children was universally considered to be a war crime; for millions of ordinary citizens around the world it still is. Nevertheless, it seems that world leaders have been happy to let such noble standards slip, even to the extent that their mothers' reputations must bear the brunt of the insults directed at them. This is shameful, no matter which way you look at it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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