The thousands of killings and human rights abuses in the Philippine government’s brutal war against illegal drugs had left Filipinos feel “hopeless” and “helpless,” Vice President Leni Robredo said in a recorded message to the United Nations (UN).
In a video message uploaded on Monday, March 13, Robredo stressed that the drug problem in the country should be treated as a “public health issue” and not something that “can be solved by bullets alone.”
“The body count due to the drug-related killings keeps growing,” Robredo said. “We are now looking at some very grim statistics… Our people need nothing less than a safe environment.”
Since President Rodrigo Duterte launched the campaign when he took office in July last year, more than 8,000 people were reportedly killed in his drug war.
“You cannot kill addicts and declare the problem solved… We must all demand greater transparency in the government’s war on drugs because this is a major, publicly-funded campaign,” Robredo remarked.
While Philippine government has repeatedly insisted that the deaths were not state-sanctioned, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) claimed that majority of the killings were conducted by police, amounting to “crimes against humanity.”
Citing other human rights abuses in the drug war, Robredo remarked people were beaten up for requesting search warrants.
“Some of those who have told us that when there’s crime, they normally go to the police. Now, they don’t know where to turn,” Robredo said.
According to her, poor people were “rounded up in places like basketball courts, women separated from men, those with tattoos asked to stand in the corner, their belongings searched.”
She also mentioned the supposed “exchange of head” scheme, in which she said “the wife, husband or relative in a so-called drug list will be taken if the person himself could not be found.”
Robredo then called on Duterte to “uphold basic human rights” instead of “encouraging its abuse.”
“We ask him to focus on the war that really matters: the war against poverty instead of just the war against illegal drugs,” Robredo further said. “We ask him to direct the nation towards respect for rule of law instead of a blatant disregard for it… to be the leader he promised to be and evoke in our people hope and inspiration instead of fear.”
Reacting to Robredo’s video message, Malacañang said that she “gravely misunderstood” the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) “exchange of head” scheme.
“[Exchange of head scheme] refers to a commitment of a drug suspect to provide assistance in the arrest of a ‘bigger fish’ in the illegal drug syndicate, whether an up-line/superior/supplier of the arrested suspect, in exchange for lighter charges,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella clarified.
In a statement, Abella took note that while the vice president has the right to speak freely on matters of public concern, Robredo also “has the responsibility to be careful with her statements especially avoiding unfounded allegations from questionable sources.”
Echoing Abella, Presidential Legal Adviser Salvador Panelo described Robredo’s online video message as “misleading and consists of bare assertions that are not based on evidence.”
Recorded in February, the Robredo’s video was released to the press ahead of its scheduled screening on Thursday, March 16 for the upcoming 60th annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Austria.
“Thus, her intention to present the same tomorrow (Thursday) during the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs is not only misplaced, but also unfortunate,” Panelo added.
He also pointed out that the government’s resources is now focused more on the rehabilitation of drug users and dependents.