Philippines’ ex-police chief admits rights abuses in drug war. Why now?

Asia World
The Philippines’ former police chief has acknowledged human rights violations during ex-president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, admitting officers committed instances of abuse during the crackdown.
The admission by Ronald dela Rosa marks a significant shift from his previous stance when he staunchly defended the drug war against all accusations of rights violations, with analysts saying his comments may have been an attempt to mitigate potential repercussions as battle lines are drawn between Duterte and President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Dela Rosa, who served as the head of the Philippine National Police (PNP) during the launch of Duterte’s drug war and is now a senator, said at a Senate forum on Thursday that each case related to the campaign should be treated and investigated separately as he lambasted efforts to lump the deaths into claims that crimes against humanity were committed.

“I did not say that there were no human rights violations occurring during the war on drugs. We acknowledge that there were cases where people’s rights have been violated, because if there weren’t, then there shouldn’t have been any cases filed against the police. There wouldn’t have been any police convicted and jailed,” he told lawmakers.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) with Philippine National Police (PNP) director general Ronald Dela Rosa in Manila in 2017. Photo; AFP

Dela Rosa’s testimony comes amid an ongoing probe by the House of Representatives into the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, where family members of slain victims have testified how police barged into their homes without warrants and killed their relatives, often on the grounds of mistaken identity.

The former police chief criticised the House probe, saying it was “not their turf” to investigate the killings. He has refused invitations from committee members to attend the inquiry, citing “inter-parliamentary courtesy” where members of the House and Senate do not meddle in each other’s affairs.

Dela Rosa’s admission is a departure from his position in previous years when he proclaimed in 2021 that “no crimes against humanity” occurred during the drug war, after the International Criminal Court said it was resuming its investigation into the deaths that took place during the campaign.

The official death toll of Duterte’s drug war stands at about 6,000, according to the PNP. However, human rights organisations and independent monitors estimate the number of deaths to be significantly higher, ranging from 12,000 to more than 20,000.

Supporters and relatives of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings walk toward a cemetery for an inaugural inurnment of remains in Caloocan City, Metro Manila, Philippines, in May. Photo: EPA-EFE

Maria Ela Atienza, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ political science department, said dela Rosa’s statement was a likely bid to spare himself from harsher judgment in the event of blowback, but added that his statement “would not matter much at this point” as he enabled these human rights violations under his tenure as PNP chief.

“There is plenty of evidence showing him heavily supporting the war on drugs and defending the police during his time as PNP chief and even as senator later,” Atienza said.

Atienza also questioned dela Rosa’s refusal to attend Congressional hearings, as the scope of the investigation covers the period when dela Rosa was police chief.

“What is being probed is what the previous administration did as far as the war on drugs is concerned. [Dela Rosa] was part of that administration as PNP chief. The fact that he is [a] senator now does not prevent the investigation of the House. In fact, he should not be criticising the House probe openly because he has a conflict of interest,” Atienza said.

Observers added that dela Rosa’s concession should be “taken with a grain of salt” as lines have been drawn between the Marcos Jnr and Duterte factions in the lead-up to next year’s midterm elections, where dela Rosa is expected to aim for re-election.

“Clearly, the Dutertes want to protect their interests, and they want to get into positions of power or put trusted people in positions by the midterm elections. However, it depends on whether the Dutertes still have enough support from the voters to put them into office … many former allies and victims-slash-survivors are no longer afraid of them,” Atienza said.


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Gary Ador Dionisio, dean of De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School and Diplomacy and Governance, said statements from Duterte allies such as dela Rosa are “an initial attempt to repudiate the Marcos administration’s programmes and policies, including its strategy in campaign against drugs”.

Dela Rosa needed to “calibrate his message to appeal to other segments of society who are either victims or disillusioned with the war on drugs”, Dionisio said.

Meanwhile, Atienza said it remained to be seen if the findings on the drug war and other possible cases uncovered could shift public sentiment against the Dutertes and their allies.

“We are also watching how the Marcos administration will deal with the Dutertes and their allies, as well as whether the legitimate opposition to the Marcoses and the Dutertes can capitalise on this disarray among the elites and political dynasties,” she said.