Vice President Leni Robredo on Monday met with representatives of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to seek help in improving the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.
Robredo did not say who the representatives were, or what specifically would be discussed, promising only to give an update on what transpired after the meeting.
As the newly appointed anti-drug czar, Robredo said she was open to suggestions from a wide range of stakeholders.
“We do not only talk to the government but also to advocates and private organizations,” she said. “We could learn a lot of lessons from their experiences on the ground.”
Also on Monday, Robredo met with the core group of the Community-Based Rehab Alliance, a network of organizations both from the private and public sectors, to push for “balanced, people-centered, humane, and evidence-based solutions” to the country’s drug problem.
Philip Dy, Robredo’s chief of staff, said the meetings were aimed at learning from others.
“In broad terms, the UNODC meeting covered… best practices that we can learn from in terms of addressing the drug problem,” Dy said. “Secondly, what has the experience been of countries in the region trying to deal with this problem, what we can learn from those experiences and how we can build on those experiences.”
Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, meanwhile, mocked Robredo, saying she should stop talking and start working.
“Vice President Robredo has been all talk since her appointment as the co-chairman of the ICAD,” Cayetano said, referring to the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs.
“I’ve been monitoring the last three days and it’s like Oplan Tokhang, has become Operation All Talk,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino in a TV interview.
Cayetano also advised Robredo to first seek a briefing from all agencies engaged in the war against drugs before “mouthing ideas and criticisms of how the campaign is being implemented.”
Responding to Cayetano, Robredo’s spokesman Barry Gutierrez observed that the vice president has not even been on the job for a week but is already drawing fire.
“If Speaker Cayetano cannot help in the work the vice president is doing, he can at least avoid for now attempts to destroy her reputation,” he said in Filipino. “The entire government needs to help in the campaign against illegal drugs. If we begin fighting with ourselves this early, that will make the drug lords happy.”
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he was saddened by Cayetano’s remarks.
“Such comments are totally uncalled for, especially coming from the Speaker of the House,” said Drilon, an ally of Robredo and her partymate in the Liberal Party.
Drilon pointed out that it cannot be denied that illegal drug continues to be a problem, notwithstanding the over 5,000 deaths from Operation Tokhang.
He said the gravity of this issue calls for everyone to set aside politics.
“Malacañang has vowed full support for the Vice President in order to fulfill this enormous task. We expect the allies of this administration to do no less,” he said.
The Palace on Monday said Robredo could scrap Oplan Tokhang if she wants to, saying the President has given her a free hand.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Palace is open to the idea of scrapping Oplan Tokhang since Robredo is now leading the campaign against illegal drugs as co-chair of ICAD.
“VP Leni is in charge. So whatever she feels that should be enforced, we will do it. It is a yes, if she wants it,” Panelo told Palace reporters.
“If she wants to scrap it and there’s something more effective, she should do it,” Panelo added.
The Palace statement came after Robredo suggested the creation of a new anti-drug campaign to replace Oplan Tokhang during her meeting with ICAD on Friday.
She said the anti-drug program has been equated to unnecessary killings.
Oplan Tokhang, or the house-to-house “knock and plead” initiative of police to get drug suspects to surrender, has gained notoriety for allegedly violating human rights and depriving suspects of the presumption of innocence.
Panelo also said there is nothing wrong if the country would seek help from foreign entities and countries such as the United States in combating the problem of illegal drugs.
Robredo earlier said US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim has offered to partner with the Philippines in the area of intelligence gathering.
“If she feels America can help in the drug war, the Americans have been helping us for a long time, sharing intelligence,” said Panelo.
Panelo also said the Duterte administration would provide additional funds for the anti-drug campaign, as Robredo requested.
“If she needs it, why not?” Panelo said.
Also on Monday, Panelo said Rappler founder and CEO Maria Ressa has been exaggerating in her claim that the Philippines is “far worse than any war zone,” adding that foreign and local journalists alike are safe when covering events in the country.
“She’s always exaggerating. It’s only a war zone to those who are involved in drugs and who resist violently any warrant of arrest being served to them, or when they’re the subject of a buy-bust operation and they violently resist as well as imperil the lives of the law enforcement officers,” Panelo said.
In her interview with American television program “60 Minutes” Ressa said journalists in the Philippines were being subjected to hostile attacks.
“This is far worse than any war zone that I’ve been in… In a war zone, you know exactly where the threats are coming from. We’ve been living through three years of this kind of hell,” she said in the interview.
She also said “there is no end” to the threats against the Philippine media.
Her arrest on cyber libel charges earlier this year sparked outrage from the local and international press and human rights groups who saw it as a government attempt to silence critics of President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug campaign.