Philippines vice-president calls for revamped drug war to end ‘senseless killings’

The opposition leader put in charge of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs said on Friday it was time to reassess a campaign that was fraught with senseless killings and had failed to curtail a staggering rise in addiction.

Speaking at her first meeting in charge of a task force on narcotics, Vice-President Leni Robredo said the strategy should be as much about public health as it was crime and justice, and police operations — known as “Oplan Tokhang” — must be conducted lawfully and based on evidence.

Robredo is a political rival of the popular Duterte and has long been a critic of his flagship campaign, arguing that thousands of urban poor have been killed, with no sign of progress toward dismantling major drug networks.

“There are many senseless killings that have accompanied Oplan Tokhang; it has reached a certain level of notoriety, that Tokhang is a war against the poor,” she said.

“It is incumbent upon us to change that thinking. It is probably time that we think about shifting to something that is effective and that no one is killed senselessly.

“I am all for an evidence-based strategy and approach,” she added.

Rights groups doubt official numbers

Robredo was appointed to the post by Duterte after remarks she made during an Oct. 23 interview with Reuters about abusive police and the campaign’s ineffectiveness, as well as in subsequent media appearances.

Her supporters are skeptical about the appointment by a president who has repeatedly snubbed and publicly ridiculed her.

Duterte’s office says he genuinely wants Robredo to succeed.

It was the latest twist in the unprecedentedly massive crackdown Duterte launched after he took office in mid-2016. More than 6,300 mostly petty drug suspects have been killed after allegedly resisting arrest and about 1.3 million others have surrendered, officials said.

But human rights groups have cited a higher death toll and accused some policemen of killing unarmed suspects based on flimsy evidence and altering crime scenes to make it look like the suspects violently fought back. Police reject that characterization.

A Filipina woman weeps after her husband was killed in what authorities described as an anti-drug operation in Manila on Aug. 17, 2017. Thousands have died as a result of the three-year drug war. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

On Friday, Robredo said drug addiction was a real problem, noting Duterte’s own frustrations about what he says are up to eight million drug-dependent Filipinos. Duterte has not disclosed the source of his numbers.

Robredo said she interpreted Duterte’s offer as a sign of his openness to new ideas.

“I want to look at it as a signal that the president is open to listen to fresh perspectives about the entire campaign,” she said. “I also want to look at it as agreement that it is time to objectively assess what we have been doing.”