No 'Fire and Rain' in Philippines: James Taylor cancels Manila concert

The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter has canceled a concert in Manila in protest of extrajudicial killings during President Rodrigo Duterte's war against drugs. 

Mike Theiler/ Reuters
Singer James Taylor performs during the 94th Annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on The Ellipse, near the White House, in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 2016.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ain’t got a friend in James Taylor.

The singer-songwriter has canceled a February concert in Manila in protest of the nearly 6,000 killings, most of them extrajudicial, during Mr. Duterte’s national war on drugs.

“I don’t think of my music as being particularly political, but sometimes one is called upon to make a political stand,” Mr. Taylor, whose hits included “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Fire and Rain,” wrote on his website Tuesday. 

“For a sovereign nation to prosecute and punish, under the law, those responsible for the illegal trade in drugs is of, course, understandable, even commendable,” Taylor said. “But recent reports from the Philippines of summary executions of suspected offenders without trial or judicial process are deeply concerning and unacceptable to anyone who loves the rule of law.”

Taylor joins a number of voices from government, human rights groups, and United Nations posts that have criticized Mr. Duterte over human rights, particularly since he admitted to shooting three suspected kidnappers who died during a firefight with police while he was mayor of Davao City, although his staff has since walked back those comments. But as the international community comes out against the Filipino leader, his support remains high inside his own country.

“In the name of human rights, it’s sad,” student Ryan James Villarmia told CNN. “But for the safety of the people, it’s good.”

As of October, Duterte’s public approval was at 64 percent, with only 11 percent of respondents saying they were dissatisfied with the first 90 days of his administration, according to a Reuters report based on polling data from Social Weather Stations.

According to figures the Philippine National Police released Monday, 5,927 people have died in the war on drugs since July 1. More than 2,000 were killed in police operations, with the government insisting that they resisted arrest, and the remainder died in vigilante-style violence or extrajudicial killings. Some critics allege that some of the vigilantes are assassins hired by authorities, although Duterte vehemently rejects that claim.

Taylor, who has openly discussed in recent press interviews his recovery from heroin addiction in his teens, apologized to fans for canceling the concert, part of a tour of the region. Renen de Guia, the president and chief executive of Taylor’s local promoter, Ovation Productions, told The Guardian he believes Taylor was the first foreign performer to cancel a Philippine concert over the killings.

The move comes just days after the UN high commissioner for human rights urged Philippine courts to launch a murder investigation into Duterte, after he told reporters he killed three suspected criminals in a firefight while mayor of Davao city. He later added he was not sure the bullets he fired killed the suspects, and a spokesman denied the president personally killed anyone.

Those deaths would be a violation of international law and Philippine constitutional rights, UN commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein said in a statement. 

Duterte’s remarks also drew condemnation from the White House.

"Those comments are deeply troubling, and they certainly are at odds with the Philippine government's stated commitment to due process and rule of law," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters last week, according to the Associated Press.

Duterte has previously encouraged police and vigilantes to assassinate people they suspect of dealing drugs, part of a hard-line anti-drug campaign that saw him elected on a wave of popularity. But they have also led the US to waver on providing aid to the Philippines. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government aid agency, recently deferred a vote on the renewal of aid for the country, which had been slated for another aid package after its previous five-year, $434 million poverty reduction program was successfully completed in May under Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

The news drew harsh condemnation from an enraged Duterte, who threatened to terminate a pact that allows US troops to visit the Philippines. 

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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