With his tendency to use foul language and engage in gutter talk against public figures, President Rodrigo Duterte has placed himself on the global stage as a figure with a target on his back. He was, in our estimate, in the crosshairs of important world personalities and many groups that took umbrage at the insults he directed at them.
It was just matter of time for one or several of them to fire back and hit home.
Now, it has happened. The big surprise is that it’s not the President of another country who has taken the shot, but a bureaucrat at the United Nations.
Addressing envoys at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on Friday, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid bin Zeid Al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince, took issue with reports about President Duterte cursing and threatening to slap Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
He also took exception over another incident wherein Duterte described Callamard as ”undernourished,” and ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda as “black” – descriptions that women and rights groups found derogatory and uncalled for.
Zeid told reporters: “This is absolutely disgraceful that the President of a country could speak in this way, using the foulest of language against a rapporteur that is highly respected.”
He then unleashed his own bomb. He suggested that Duterte take a psychiatric examination. He questioned his mental fitness.
Zeid warned about the worsening repression in the Philippines, arising from Duterte’s “authoritarian” style. He has made the human rights situation in the Philippines a key item in his annual report, which he released on Wednesday at the UNHRC.
Zeid’s remarks predictably hit home in Manila and Malacanang. Opponents and critics of the President have seized his words as emblematic of a new seriousness in international concern about the Philippines.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and presidential spokesman Harry Roque have come out swinging against commissioner Zeid. They have tried to fire more words than Zeid, as if the quantity of words would make a difference in the word war.
Spokesman Harry Roque said the UN High Commissioner’s language was not just an insult to the Philippines and the Filipino people but to all countries that have democratically elected their heads of state.
At the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Cayetano took exception to the “irresponsible and disrespectful” comments of the UN official against the President.
“This action of High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein is completely uncalled for and demeans not only the head of state of a member-state, but tarnishes the reputation of the Office of the High Commissioner,” Cayetano said.
Cayetano went farther and declared: “The world actually needs more Dutertes — leaders with empathy; leaders who listen to their people and; are ready to sacrifice their lives to protect their people,”
Before more words are fired by both sides, and before more lethal weapons are employed, we are moved to issue this bit of counsel to all the combatants: In this word war, it’s not a question of who will say the most insulting or offensive words; it is usually a question of who is more persuasive and believable.
But then again, as mentioned in Part I of this editorial, it would be best for the two sides to start seeking points of compromise in a meaningful dialogue and cooperation on the country’s human rights situation, and stop hurling insults against each other.