The Australian government is dealing with a bit of embarrassment over a photo in which Nick Warner, director general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, did a “fist pump” alongside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
As the UK Guardian points out, the fist pump is Duterte’s signature victory gesture, developed during a 2016 presidential campaign in which he promised to kill drug dealers by the thousands. According to international observers, Duterte has kept that promise, although many of the roughly 5,500 people killed since he came into office were not, strictly speaking, drug dealers. Some of them do not appear to have been criminals at all.
Among the latest casualties of Duterte’s drug war was 17-year-old student Kian Delos Santos, who was allegedly dragged from his home and murdered by police officers. A witness said he used his last words to beg the officers not to kill him because he had an important test coming up at school the next day.
Even Duterte thought this was out of line, as he claims to have ordered the immediate arrest of the police officers involved. Furious Australian politicians thought it was “completely inappropriate” for Warner to pose with Duterte in a jovial fist-pump photo, as Labor MP Anthony Byrne put it.
Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch went further, saying it was “sickening” to see Australians intelligence chief “fist-pumping a man who has instigated the killing of thousands.”
“Australia is sending mixed messages amid an incredible spike in killings of the Philippines poorest people. Australia must condemn in the strongest terms the killings by Philippines police of people without trial,” said Michael Hayworth of Amnesty International.
“I do not know the details of how it came about or who released the photograph, but of course, Australia’s secret intelligence service is called a secret intelligence service for a reason, so preferably, the work that they do is below the surface,” said Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop of the fist-pump photo on Thursday, probably wishing Warner had seen fit to keep his photo shoot with Duterte below the surface too.
She said she believed the photo was taken at Duterte’s request during Warner’s visit to the Philippine president’s palace on Tuesday.
“On both occasions that I’ve met with President Duterte, I’ve raised the issue of human rights and the extrajudicial killings,” Bishop assured reporters.
She added that the ongoing Islamic State insurgency on the Philippine island of Mindanao is a “significant issue” for the entire region, because it has “the potential to be the southeast Asian headquarters for ISIS,” so Australian support for the Philippine government is crucial.
A spokesman for Duterte said on Thursday that the photo captured a “lighthearted” moment between Warner and Duterte, a happy “warming of relationships” and “wasn’t meant to be in any way political.”