MANILA, Philippines – "So it's been a struggle. And the struggle is real."
Vice President Leni Robredo "struggled" – and was open about it – during a forum at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom on Friday, April 6.
After delivering a speech on Friday, Robredo was asked at least 9 questions from the audience.
The second had to do with the human rights situation in the Philippines, in the context of President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs.
"Human rights. Uhm…" was how Robredo began to answer the question, according to a transcript from her office. She elicited laughter from the audience.
Turning more serious, the Vice President said: "You know, I have been placed in a lot of very controversial positions because of my statements on human rights. Believe it or not, for some reason, human rights has been given a bad connotation in the Philippines. And it has not been that way before. But for the very first time, many Filipinos regard human rights as a sort of a bad thing. And it's unfortunate."
Robredo admitted that while she had "passionate views" over human rights, she finds that when she talks about it, critics focus on her supposed ambition and alleged dreams of "taking" the presidency from Duterte.
She admitted to "struggling" at least two more times in the course of her answer.
"I'm trying to be very, very careful about – not because I am afraid, but because I do not want again my statements to shift the focus on real issues at hand," she said.
Robredo, who was once a lawyer in an alternative law group, has been staunchly against human rights abuses in the context of Duterte's anti-drug campaign. Police, who have taken the bulk of the campaign work, have been criticized for allegedly taking shortcuts to eradicate illegal drugs.
Philippine police have also been accused of executing drug suspects or tapping vigilante groups to gun down alleged drug personalities. They have denied these allegations.
Robredo, on the other hand, has been criticized by Duterte's supporters for supposedly painting the country in a bad light in speeches both domestic and abroad.
Speaking at the London School of Economics for a forum on "Overcoming Poverty in the Philippines and the Role of Politics in Economic Growth," she recalled the backlash she got from drug campaign deaths she cited in a speech before a United Nations side event.
"What is sad about this is that one death is one death too many, but the debate has shifted to 'It's not 12,000. It's just 3,000. It's just 3,000.' And 3,000 deaths is 3,000 deaths too many,'" she said.
Robredo and the Liberal Party, which she heads, have been criticized by some sectors for not doing enough as the political "opposition." Robredo used to be Duterte's housing czar but she resigned from that post after she was told to stop attending Cabinet meetings.
Here's part of the open forum at the London School of Economics, based on a transcript from the Office of the Vice President:
QUESTION: Thank you for remembering me. My question is quite a lot, actually, but one of the things I wanted to raise with the Vice President—I'm really happy to have you elected anyway (laughter)—is that in terms of human rights situation in the Philippines, it's, as you said earlier in your presentation, it's one of the worst in the world, and it's getting even worse. So I'm wondering if there is any kind of influence that the Office of the Vice President can do in order to alleviate the kind of terrible human rights situation that is happening in the Philippines. Because as you know, the war against drugs would not be resolved by killing people, and that's been a kind of historical experience for many countries in the world, which has the same problem, so I wonder if there is anything at all that the Vice President’s office can do in order to stop the killings, really. And that's what we’ve been trying as a community in the UK to also say to the world, that this is not the kind of sentiment that the Filipinos have, it's something that we don’t want to happen in the Philippines or anywhere in the world.
ROBREDO: Human rights. Uhm...
(laughter from the audience)
You know, I have been placed in a lot of very controversial positions because of my statements on human rights. Believe it or not, for some reason, human rights has been given a bad connotation in the Philippines. And it has not been that way before. But for the very first time, many Filipinos regard human rights as a sort of a bad thing. And it’s unfortunate.
Number two, I have very passionate views on it, but honestly I don't think I would be the best person to debate the President on this, because whenever I open my mouth on human rights, it's become, you know... the focus — for some reason, there are people who are able to shift the focus not on the issue that I talk about, but on the fact that I am very ambitious and I want to take the presidency out of our President.
There has been a lot of unfortunate things happening in our country as far as human rights is concerned, and many of our groups – not just the regular cause-oriented ones, but even groups who have not been very political before – have expressed a lot of concern already on the human rights situation. To look at it on the positive side, I think they have made a lot of headway in the sense that... to a certain extent, there has been a small shift as far as the war on drugs is concerned. It is not... It is not – you know I'm struggling with words... (laughter)
... Because I’m trying to be very, very careful about – not because I am afraid, but because I do not want again my statements to shift the focus on real issues at hand. But you know, there has been a lot of debate on how many people have been killed. I made a statement before the UN before, which put me in a lot of hot water, just because of the number of people who have died. But you know, what is sad about this is that one death is one death too many, but the debate has shifted to "It's not 12,000. It's just 3,000. It's just 3,000." And 3,000 deaths is 3,000 deaths too many.
We're doing something positive, as far as the Office of the Vice President is concerned. We've been very active with groups promoting rehabilitation as an alternative means of fighting the war on drugs. We've been advocating to look at it from the point of view of health. I wouldn't say that we've been successful already; as long as the killings continue, then we're still unsuccessful. We're trying to be creative... we're trying to be very creative in the way we're doing things, but still it’s there. And the reality is that the President is very popular, and it's — you know — it's... it's... it's a lot of — it would take a lot of innovativeness and more imagination in advocating for human rights. It’s a different story altogether.
I was telling you, I was a human rights lawyer for a long time and the way we're doing things before, it seems that they are not working now. So it's been a struggle. And the struggle is real.
When I say it's real, there's been so many roadblocks as far as the fight for human rights is concerned, and those roadblocks, we've not allowed them to... not allowed them to constrain us in what we’re doing. But you know, we’ve been looking for avenues to... if you know what I mean, to be more creative. And I think the crucial thing here is that we can't give up. We have to continue doing the pushback.