Philippines’ Duterte appoints political rival as ‘drugs tsar’

Leni Robredo has been a loud critic of Duterte’s policies. (Reuters pic)

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed his main political rival, Leni Robredo, his “drugs tsar”, after the opposition leader expressed alarm about the death toll in an anti-narcotics campaign and said it needed a fresh approach.

The appointment comes after critical remarks by Robredo during an interview with Reuters, and in subsequent media appearances, which angered Duterte and prompted a torrent of fury by his supporters aimed at Robredo, who is his vice president but has no role in his administration.

Duterte’s spokesman said the decision to make Robredo a co-chair of an inter-agency committee against narcotics was genuine and not a cynical move to discredit her.

Robredo had no immediate comment. Her spokesman last week said Duterte’s talk of offering her the job was to make her a scapegoat for the shortcomings of his anti-drugs campaign.

The war on drugs, Duterte’s signature policy, has caused an international outcry because of the thousands of people killed in what human rights groups say are systematic executions and cover-ups by police. Police reject that.

Duterte is furious about a UN Human Rights Council resolution in July to investigate the killings. Last year, he withdrew his country’s membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after it launched a preliminary examination into alleged crimes against humanity.

“With this development, the palace supposes that detractors and critics will finally see the sincerity of the president in making such offer,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement, referring to the presidential palace.

He said the decision was made “in the hope that the government be successful in combating the atrocity caused by the use and trade of illegal narcotics, regardless of who greatly contributed to such success”.

Activists say police are operating with impunity, and with tacit support of a president who once said his drugs war would kill 100,000 people.

Police say they have killed nearly 7,000 drug suspects, who resisted arrest, but deny involvement in the mysterious murders of thousands more users.

Robredo on Oct 23 told Reuters the crackdown had overwhelmingly targeted the poor and police were being allowed to abuse their power. She said international help, including from the United Nations and ICC, should be sought if the government refused to change tack.

Robredo, who was elected separately to Duterte, said too many people have been killed, with no evidence of a decline in the supply or use of drugs.

“We ask ourselves, ‘why is this still happening?’ The president has already made very serious threats to drug syndicates, to drug lords … and yet it’s still very prevalent, so obviously, it’s not working,” she said in the interview.

Panelo said the president had directed all agencies to support Robredo.

“If she has been criticising the drug war as ineffective, then there must be ideas on her mind to make it effective,” Panelo told news channel ANC.