WHITE HOUSE —
President Donald Trump returns from a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia with a pocketful of business and trade deals and, arguably, improved relations with a number of important countries in the region. But critics say those benefits have come at the expense of America's reputation as a champion of human rights.
"The United States' voice on human rights has basically disappeared," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "Trump has made clear that he is only interested in having personal relationships with leaders of other countries, and if they flatter him and roll out the red carpet, then he's happy and they can then essentially get away with murder."
On the flight home, Trump defended his strategy of building personal relationships, arguing that he had made progress on issues such as reining in North Korea's nuclear ambitions, helping to win freedom for several U.S. college basketball players accused of shoplifting in China and securing the future of a key U.S. military base in the Pacific.
"Relationship is always important. It doesn't mean it's necessarily close. It's really a relationship based on respect," Trump said. "To me, a relationship based on respect is much more important than anything else, including friendship."
Several times during the trip, Trump traded hugs and handshakes with authoritarian leaders who stand accused of fostering, condoning or even committing systematic human rights abuses.
On his final stop in Manila, where rights activists burned his effigy in front of the venue of the Asia-Pacific summit he was attending, Trump ignored the widespread use of extrajudicial killings associated with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug campaign.
In a sharp departure from the stance of former President Barack Obama, who canceled a bilateral meeting with Duterte last year, Trump raised a toast with the Philippine strongman and said, "We've had a great relationship."
Aboard Air Force One, Trump sought to clarify his actions, noting that the Duterte government is a critical strategic ally in the region.
"The Philippines is an unbelievably important military location," he told reporters. "And as you know, we had no relationship for a long period of time in the Philippines. Now we have a very good relationship there. We're back with the Philippines."
Critics, however, noted that Trump had not only ignored Duterte's human rights record, he also had not spoken a word during the nearly two-week trip about any of Asia's most egregious horrors, including Myanmar's military campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority, which the United Nations has called "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing."
"It's unimaginable that any former U.S. president would have said nothing about something as dramatic as 600,000 to 700,000 refugees being forced out of Burma into Bangladesh," Human Rights Watch's Adams told VOA. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
Obligation to speak out
Adams criticized Trump's reluctance to publicly speak out against rights abuses, noting that previous presidents successfully balanced the need for good relations with unsavory foreign leaders with what he called the obligation to assail cases of ethnic cleansing.
"Trump has shown himself to be a pushover," Adams said. "He's been played by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, by Duterte, played by even tinpot dictators like Hun Sen in Cambodia, because they know he's not going to raise human rights, so they flatter him and then he says nice things about them.
"But the U.S. has gained nothing in the transaction, and the people who lose are the citizens of their countries," he added.
Activist Diane Blake of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States acknowledged the unpleasant choices all U.S. presidents face in balancing the need to uphold the principles of human rights while at times handling relations with real-world dictators and thugs.
"I know it's hard to do both, to care about human rights and to do what's best for your country. It's not an easy job," Blake said. "Sometimes your job as president is to do the best for your people in your country. So it's not a carte blanche answer."
Then she paused for a moment and added, "But I think Trump has taken it to an extreme."