No one was surprised when Vice President Leni Robredo said recently that the country’s “war on drugs,” in which police have admitted to killing more than 5,500 people, was “not working.” She has spoken out frequently against President Duterte’s brutal and bloody campaign, the actual death toll of which may exceed 27,000 victims, according to human rights groups. What came as a surprise was Mr. Duterte’s reaction: He dared her to run the campaign against drugs herself. “Let’s see if you can handle it,” Mr. Duterte said on Oct. 28.
Two days later, Mr. Duterte formalized his challenge by appointing Robredo as cochair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (Icad), a body that reports directly to Mr. Duterte’s office. A week later, Robredo accepted the offer.
The offer seemed farcical given the contentious relationship between Mr. Duterte and Robredo, who belong to rival political parties. Mr. Duterte has disparaged her as “weak” and his administration has filed sedition charges against Robredo and others. But she has never relented in her criticism of Mr. Duterte and his “drug war.”
Some suggest that Robredo fell into a Duterte trap. She will not actually lead the “drug war” because she will cochair the Icad with Aaron Aquino, head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, which works with the Philippine National Police on the drug raids. It seems unlikely that the drug enforcement agency and the police, the drug war enforcers Mr. Duterte has promised to protect, would cede any sort of operational control to the Vice President.
Administration allies have already predicted her failure, while many of those who warned her about this “poisoned chalice” are now offering her advice. One senator even told her to “watch your back.” But Robredo may be able to make it work. That would mean ending the murderous police drug operations that have become rampant throughout the country. At the same time, she should be leading efforts to develop voluntary, community-based drug dependence treatment services that comport with international best practice standards and human rights principles. The Philippines needs to rethink its drug policies, and just maybe Robredo is the one who can kick-start that process.
CARLOS H. CONDE, researcher, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch, @condeHRW / Philippine Daily Inquirer