The Philippines President's Aspiration to Out-Massacre Hitler

Rodrigo Duterte told reporters he’d like to kill 3 million addicts, saying the Nazi leader “massacred 3 million Jews.”

Presidential candidate Rodrigo "Digong" Duterte talks to the media before casting his vote at a polling precinct for national elections at Daniel Aguinaldo National High School in Davao city in southern Philippines, May 9, 2016.
Erik de Castro / Reuters

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said Friday he aspired to accomplish in his country the level of mass murder Adolf Hitler achieved, saying, “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now there’s 3 million, there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

Hitler, in fact, killed 6 million Jews. That doesn’t make Duterte’s comments any less distressing, coming as they do after several controversial remarks since before he was elected president earlier this year. Duterte took office at the end of June, and he’s made his feelings about drug addicts well known. He ran on a campaign promise to wage war on crime and drugs, and in his first few months in office, more than 3,500 Filipinos have been killed, many in extrajudicial slayings. But striving to embody history’s most-reviled mass murderer has earned Duterte more critics and renewed repudiation.

“At least if Germany had Hitler,” Duterte said Friday, “the Philippines would have …” and here he trailed off and pointed at himself.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, asked rhetorically: “Does he want to be sent to the international criminal court? Because he’s working his way there.”

Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, told CNN, “These statements are revolting, and President Duterte must retract them and apologize.”

Duterte is known for his outrageous, crass comments, and he makes them almost daily. But earlier this week, he also said something that may have international political implications. The U.S. and the Philippines have kept a close relationship since the end of World War II, and the U.S. military maintains several bases in the country. The Philippines has also been an important partner for the U.S. in taking a tough policy stance toward China, whose recent actions in the region have worried many countries. On Monday Duterte said he wanted to seek a closer relationship with both Russia and China. He said the U.S.-Philippines relationship was at a “point of no return,” but in keeping with Duterte’s style—that of consistent verbal inconsistency— he also said Monday: “I am ready to not really break (U.S.) ties, but we will open alliances with China and … Medvedev,” referring to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister.

Like many of his comments, the U.S. wasn’t sure how to take it (in September Duterte called U.S. President Obama a “son of a bitch,” to which Obama responded, “Clearly, he’s colorful guy” and canceled a meeting the two had previously scheduled). Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department spokesman, told Reuters, “They’re a sovereign nation and we’re certainly not going to hold them back from pursuing closer relations with either of those countries.”

On Friday, aboard the USS Carl Vinson harbored near San Diego, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the Asia-Pacific region the “single most consequential region for America’s future.” Despite Duterte’s words, Carter said the U.S. will continue to invest in its five bases in the Philippines and the countries’ relationship remains “ironclad.”

For both countries, the South China Sea remains pivotal to their friendship, and has historically put the Philippines at odds with China. More than $5 trillion of trade passes through its waters each year, and while China claims most of the South China Sea,Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have competing claims and would like a larger share. In July, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines’ claim to a portion of the sea and concluded China has no legal right over the bulk. China refused to acknowledge the ruling.

That could make for an awkward introduction, or an interesting bargaining chip as Duterte seeks a closer relationship with Beijing—assuming Duterte sticks by his words.