Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has used its so-called Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on Russian and Venezuelan leaders accused of human rights violations. Politically, that’s easy.
But the prime minister’s trip to Manila this week provides an opportunity to use that law against one of the true villains of the modern era – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. And that will be more difficult.
Duterte should be sanctioned. He condones, encourages and in all likelihood orders the murder of his own citizens. According to a complaint filed with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, he is responsible for the murder of at least 9,400 people suspected of being drug addicts or pushers.
Some murders were allegedly carried out by police acting under his instruction. Others are said to have been committed by state-financed vigilantes.
The European Union parliament has decried what it calls extrajudicial killings under the Duterte regime. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has also taken him to task.
Duterte doesn’t deny his guilt. He admits it. In fact, he revels in it.
The former tough-guy mayor of Davao was elected president last year on a promise to kill 100,000 drug addicts and pushers. Last December, he bragged that as Davao’s mayor he had personally shot dead suspected criminals in order to set an example for his police officers.
On Friday, at an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vietnam, he bragged that he was a teenager when he made his first kill.
“At the age of 16, I already killed someone,” he said. “A real person. A rumble. A stabbing. I was just 16 years old. It was just over a look. How much more now that I am president?”
Last year he compared himself to Hitler, saying he would like to kill as many drug addicts as the Nazi leader did Jews. “At least Germany had Hitler,” he said.
Duterte does not take criticism well. He famously called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” when it was merely suggested that the then U.S. president might chide him for the murders. On Friday, the Philippine president threatened to slap the face of the UN special rapporteur.
So Trudeau should be prepared if he dares to criticize Duterte. Yet how could the prime minister not do so, particularly in light of Canada’s adoption of the Magnitsky Act last month?
That act, named after a Russian lawyer who died in prison after accusing officials there of tax fraud, gives Canada’s government the power to impose sanctions and travel bans on foreigners deemed to have committed gross human rights violations.
This month, Ottawa announced it was targeting 52 officials from Russia, Venezuela and South Sudan – including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. With the possible exception of the three South Sudanese officials, I doubt that any of the 52 has as much blood on his hands as Duterte.
Given its provenance, the danger in the Magnitsky Act has always been that it would be used exclusively as a political weapon in the new Cold War between the west and Russia. Adding Venezuela to the mix does little to alleviate this problem since Maduro is already on Washington’s hit list.
The inclusion of three officials deemed responsible for the carnage in South Sudan broadens the effective scope of the act and is therefore welcome. But, since South Sudan is a not an important player on the world stage, that move was also easy.
Telling the truth about Duterte would be politically more difficult. He is popular both at home in the Philippines and among many in the diaspora – including some who have emigrated to Canada. But if the Liberal government truly believes in the principles behind the Magnitsky Act – if it truly believes there should be morality in foreign affairs – then Trudeau has no choice.
He cannot treat this murderous man as just another duly elected leader. He cannot travel all the way to Manila and ignore the killings there.
Practically, Canada can do little to affect events in the Philippines. But by using the Magnitsky Act against Duterte, it could at least signal its distaste.
Thomas Walkom is a Troy Media national columnist.