By Karl Romano and Luis Liwanag
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has left thousands dead has saved the country from becoming a “narco-state,” the country’s top diplomat has told the United Nations.
Speaking before the UN’s 73rd General Assembly in New York on Saturday, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said that Duterte’s war on drugs was meant to protect the citizenry from its effects and that suspected drug dealers and addicts killed were slain in legitimate operations.
“As a sovereign and democratic country led by duly-elected president, we are on track in salvaging our deteriorating country from becoming a narco-state or a state held hostage by the high and powerful who ignore the plight of the poor, powerless and marginalized or both,” Cayetano said in a speech, copies of which were made available Monday.
He said that the government respected human rights for all, although the government would not shirk its responsibility if made to choose between an innocent civilian and a drug trafficker.
“In cases where we have to choose between protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens and law enforcers versus the rights of drug lords and criminals, it is clear we will protect the former,” Cayetano said. “Who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you do the same?”
His statement came two days after Duterte for the first time openly acknowledged that extrajudicial killings had happened in his 2-year-old government.
“My only sin is the extrajudicial killings,” Duterte said on Thursday, the first time that he had acknowledged that state agents had acted under presidential orders.
Earlier, he had maintained that the estimated 4,500 drug addicts and dealers slain in the drug war were killed when they put up a fight against police officers.
Rights groups have placed the number of those slain at close to 12,000 – a shocking figure that eclipses the number of activists slain during the 20-year authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos, who was toppled by a civilian-back military revolt in 1986.
Not an admission, spokesman says
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque insisted on Monday that the president’s statement did not amount to an admission because “he did not explicitly admit to the crime of murder.”
“I’d like to emphasize that there is actually no crime under domestic law or international law as EJK,” Roque told reporters, using the local acronym for extrajudicial killings.
“In fact this is a misleading term because killing in our Constitution and in our laws is never legal so there is no such thing as extrajudicial killings. So it’s either a lawful killing or an unlawful killing,” he said.
He said that some critics were quick to jump on the statement because they think that it would bolster their complaints before the Hague-based ICC, where Duterte faces two complaints of murder and crimes against humanity, one of which was filed by relatives of people slain in the drug war.
Duterte has been angered by the ICC and as withdrawn the Philippines from an international treaty that created the court. But experts have pointed out that the withdrawal process would take a full year after a country files its notice of abrogation.
Roque reiterated that “there is no pending preliminary investigation in the ICC as of yet.”
He emphasized that the ICC could not assume on taking on the case because the Philippines has a “working criminal justice system.”
“Those who have complaints against the president, better file their complaints against him here in the Philippines,” he said.
‘Seems to be a confirmation’
But Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo said the president’s admission could only work against him.
“First of all, that’s long been debated. A lot of people say extrajudicial killings exist. The government denies it. It seems to be a confirmation that the critics are right in saying that a lot of these killings are above the law,” Robredo said.
The Philippine leader has previously removed Robredo from his cabinet, accusing her of undermining his government.
Robredo, a lawyer and a known critic of Duterte’s war on drugs, said she found it insulting for the families who lost their loved ones to the anti-drug campaign when government officials clarified the president was not serious in his public admission.
“There is no stronger piece of evidence than a confession,” she said. “That in itself is evidence.”
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato City contributed to this report.