Did Tillerson and Duterte discuss human rights? Depends on which side you ask.

A senior State Department official on Tuesday pushed back against the assertion by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson minimized human rights concerns in a conversation they had a day earlier.

R.C. Hammond, a Tillerson aide who was present during the meeting Tuesday evening at Malacanang Palace in Manila, said Tillerson brought up U.S. criticism of a drug war in the Philippines that has left thousands of people dead. But he said Tillerson emphasized solutions, and made a general offer of U.S. assistance in combating drug cartels.

“Mr. President, we are all aware of the American people’s criticism of you in your handling of the drug cartels,” Hammond quoted Tillerson telling Duterte during their hour-long meeting.

Tillerson explained how the United States and Mexico had cooperated in the war on drug dealers, according to Hammond, and offered to share tactics the two countries have learned.

Hammond said Tillerson’s offer of assistance was general in nature and had no details such as specific steps or a dollar amount. He described Duterte’s response as cordial but noncommital.

“We provided a solution. It’s up to President Duterte what he would like to do,” Hammond said.

The State Department’s account of the meeting was strikingly different from the one Duterte provided during a news conference in Manila. Duterte told reporters that both the United States and Australia had “considerably toned down” their criticism of the Philippine drug war. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met with Duterte immediately before Tillerson was ushered in, forcing Tillerson to wait in a separate room for a spell before being summoned.

According to Duterte’s account, both Tillerson and Bishop raised the issue of human rights “only in passing.”

The dispute over the content of talks between the former Exxon executive who had no experience in diplomacy before becoming secretary of state and the controversial, often foul-mouthed Philippine president, threatened to overshadow Tillerson’s relatively smooth performance at a regional conference in Manila. He spent much of it trying to corral countries into amping up the pressure against North Korea over its missile and nuclear testing.

It also could revive criticism that Tillerson has not shown as much passion for condemning human rights abuses as is traditionally exhibited by a secretary of state.

Questions about Tillerson’s talks…

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