LIHUE — Last Monday, Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao, a city on Mindanao Island in the Philippines, was on Kauai signing a sister-city partnership with Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.
She’s the daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose administration has been criticized by Amnesty International and other groups for committing multiple human rights violations.
In a statement to TGI, Sarah Blane, County of Kauai spokesperson, said sister-city relationships are not endorsements of any specific governmental type or administration.
“They are not agreements between two elected officials, but rather a commitment to foster relationships between the people within those communities. They are about aloha and giving and receiving cultural exchanges,” she said.
The sister-city partnership with Davao is the fifth between cities in the Philippines and the County of Kauai.
“It’s about partnership and creating and fortifying an open, communicative atmosphere to induce a heightened exchange of ideas, particularly in tourism and culture, agriculture and trade and commerce,” Carvalho said in a press release following the signing.
“As the world continues to evolve, the challenges we face become increasingly complex. Now more than ever, there is a value in learning continuously and in collaborating with others to find solutions to address concerns that we may face,” Sara Duterte said in the press release.
In February, Carvalho visited Davao, signing a similar agreement at its city hall.
“Through these sister-city relationships, I have had the opportunity to visit the Philippines and learn firsthand how Hawaii and the Philippines are separated by ocean but connected by our sense of family, and our dedication to build our youth, our connection to our culture and heritage, and our dedication to agriculture, tourism and other business and economic ventures,” Carvalho said.
But Davao itself and the Duterte family are not free from controversy.
While Amnesty International did not respond to a request for an interview, a quick search of its website revealed dozens of articles about President Duterte, who was once Davao’s mayor and is known for his hard stance on the city’s drug war, which allegedly included death squads and vigilantism in the killing of thousands of supposed drug suppliers, dealers and other criminals.
An Oct. 7, 2016, Amnesty International article states that 100 days into his presidency, 3,000 lives had already been lost, marked by state-sanctioned violence on a “truly shocking scale.”
“His (Rodrigo Duterte) brutal crackdown on those allegedly involved in drug crimes has led to carnage on the streets and the obliteration of key human rights, including the right to life and due process,” Rafendi Djamin, director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific at Amnesty International, was quoted as saying in the article.
Duterte’s presidency has created a climate where anyone can kill or be killed in the name of the war on drugs, Djamin said.
An article published by the Human Rights Watch dated March 2, 2017, states that as of that year, more than 7,000 people were killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and in March, an article published by The Global Journalist states that number has grown to more than 12,000 deaths.
Sara Duterte — whose office declined to participate in this story — was first elected to office as a vice mayor in 2007, while her father was mayor. Reports say she assaulted a court sheriff, leading to the demolition of a squatter community several years ago. As a deal with her father, she ran for mayor in 2016.
She’s a lawyer, married and a mother of three, and is seeking reelection in the 2019 election.
Her husband and older brother were implicated in a large methamphetamine smuggling bust in 2017, but were cleared of all charges due to lack of evidence.
Blane told TGI the people of Davao and the concepts of friendship, understanding and goodwill are not political. They are universal, Blane said.
“By sharing our aloha spirit with others, we have the ability to foster unity rather than perpetuate divisiveness,” she said.
Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, the sister-city organization’s mission is to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time.
Christina Burchette, communications manager for Sister Cities International, told TGI the purpose of sister cities is citizens working with citizens to make the world a better place.
When asked if Sister Cities International had any concerns about Davao, Burchette responded: “There’s not supposed to be any political association with the program. That’s not the driving force behind the purpose of sister cities.”
The organization’s policy states that it is an autonomous not-for-profit organization whose policies and actions are independent of any individual, as well as any federal, state or local entity.
“Our members and our volunteer citizen diplomats pride themselves on representing their respective communities, and on maintaining relations with citizens in other countries even when official national relations are problematic,” it says.
TGI also asked the Kauai Filipino Chamber of Commerce if it had any concerns about the connection.
In a written response, the Kauai Filipino Chamber of Commerce said it was looking forward to working with the county to help make this sister-city relationship successful.
“Mayor Sara Duterte is a duly elected official in her own right and we will work with her as mayor of Davao City. Our hope is that this sister-city relationship helps opens doors for our Kauai businesses to do more business in the Philippines,” said the statement.
The Kauai Filipino Community Council said the sister-city partnership with Davao is timely.
“By our examples and struggles, we hope to demonstrate that we can indeed overcome and contribute to a better Kauai, Hawaii and country,” the statement said.
Bethany Freudenthal can be reached at 652-7891 or bfreudenthal@thegarden island.com.