So what if Bato heads the Senate panel probing drug war?

Aika Rey
So what if Bato heads the Senate panel probing drug war?
Human Rights Watch warns that Senator Ronald 'Bato' dela Rosa will only be an obstacle to accountability on extrajudicial killings under the drug war

MANILA, Philippines – The President’s choice as his first top cop is now a senator. And he’s off to lead a Senate panel that will hear probes into the drug war.

As an erstwhile chief of the Philippine National Police, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa is a good fit as chairperson of the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs.

But being the “architect” of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs himself raises eyebrows as to why Dela Rosa is set to lead a panel investigation that could involve himself.

So what’s the big deal about Dela Rosa heading that committee?

Are there gains? The powerful Senate committees are “at the core” of lawmaking, investigation, and oversight, according to its rules.

The jurisdicton of the panel on public order and dangerous drugs covers all matters relating to peace and order, and the acquisition, possession, manufacture, and distribution of prohibited and regulated drugs, along with drug abuse rehabilitation.

In the 17th Congress, the panel was headed by Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief like Dela Rosa. As committee chairmanships were being finalized before the 18th Congress officially opened, Lacson let Dela Rosa take over.

Governance and legal expert Tony La Viña said that Dela Rosa is among the perfect candidates to lead the committee, apart from Lacson.

La Viña told Rappler that Bato – as what his friends and the media call Dela Rosa – knows the ins and outs of the institution very well, even with eyes closed.

“He’s familiar with the topic and he doesn’t need to study the background on the war on drugs. Like Lacson, he’s perfect for probes like this kasi hindi siya maloloko (because he can’t be fooled),” La Viña said.

The ties that bind? Targeting suspected users and sellers of illegal drugs was not new for Dela Rosa, as he led the anti-illegal drugs campaign in Davao City from 2012 to 2013.

Oplan TokHang (from Tuktok-Hangyo), as it was known there, is an anti-drug operation in which police would knock on the doors of suspected drug addicts or dealers to warn them of the consequences of not reforming.

Dela Rosa was the former top cop of Davao City then, when presidential daughter Sara Duterte was Davao City mayor. The President was the city’s vice mayor at the time.

When Dela Rosa was chosen to head the country’s police force, he replicated the approach nationwide. But it morphed into a different form when it reached Metro Manila.

Dela Rosa signed PNP Command Memorandum Circular (CMC) No. 16-2016 which specified the “general guidelines, procedures and tasks of police” in the conduct of the war on drugs.

It specified that the campaign is “in support to the Barangay Drug Clearing Strategy of the government and the neutralization of illegal drug personalities nationwide.”

This circular, among others, has been contested before the Supreme Court by a group of lawyers in 2017.

As Dela Rosa oversaw the implementation of the drug war, the official government tally of people killed in legitimate police operations reached 4,729 suspects from July 1, 2016 to May 15, 2018. Rights groups, however, estimate over 27,000 deaths under Dela Rosa’s watch – a tally which includes vigilante-style killings.

Despite that, Dela Rosa denied issuing kill orders to cops. (READ: Was the PNP’s war on drugs illegal? Here’s why lawyers think so)

He reached the mandatory retirement age of 56 in January 2018, but left the PNP in April 2018. He headed the Bureau of Corrections after, until he filed his candidacy for senator in October last year.

The problem? Conflict of interest.

As head of the Senate panel investigating the drug war, experts and advocates see that Dela Rosa will be an “ineffective chairman” given his track record in the Duterte administration.

“There’s no way he can function if he’s investigating himself. You don’t investigate yourself,” La Viña said.

La Viña also said that resource persons during probes may no longer testify or inhibit from the probe, given the affiliation with Dela Rosa. He added that the flipside is also true, that Dela Rosa must inhibit from the probe, given his relationship with the resource person.

Human Rights Watch – which called Dela Rosa’s chairmanship a “travesty” – also expected that the committee under the former PNP chief will do “nothing.”

“It’s impossible to expect independence, let alone justice, to come out of such an inquiry as long as it is headed by the person singularly most complicit in the drug war violence after Duterte,” HRW deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson told Rappler.

“By appointing him to the committee that’s supposed to have oversight on public safety policies, the Senate and its leaders are spitting in the face of the thousands of victims of the drug war,” Robertson said.

Dela Rosa earlier told dzBB that he would be willing to inhibit from any investigations into the war on drugs, adding that if he decided to do so, the Senate panel has a vice chair who could preside over the hearings anyway.

But in his first appearance in the Senate’s weekly forum, Dela Rosa said “he won’t inhibit” from such probes, arguing it wasn’t him who killed the victims of the war on drugs, dismissing the issue of command responsibility.

Dela Rosa said he would have his head cut off if it is proven that the extrajudicial killings in the country are state-sponsored.

Cover-up? More than Dela Rosa, it’s about saving the President.

University of the Philippines political scientist Gene Pilapil saw Dela Rosa’s chairmanship as a way to protect Duterte from the drug war investigation. (READ: The Impunity Series)

“This is another layer of impunity – Senate inaction as the institution investigating the extrajudicial killings in relation to the campaign of the executive he has ties with,” Pilapil told Rappler.

Dela Rosa had promised that he would not be a “yes-man” to Malacañang. But Pilapil has doubts.

“Hindi lang siya ang architect ng extrajudicial killings, pero utang na loob niya ‘yung position niya kay Duterte. (He’s not only the architect of the extrajudicial killings, he owes his position as senator to the President.) It would be a lie to say that ‘we will be independent’ of the President,” Pilapil told Rappler.

The human rights advocates are no longer expecting Dela Rosa to be objective in the Senate probes either.

“The likelihood is Dela Rosa’s prominent presence in these probes means there will be a cover-up to prevent accountability for violent acts ordered by Dutere, Dela Rosa, and the police overall,” Robertson said.

What should be done instead? Without mincing words, HRW called for the resignation of Dela Rosa.

“Dela Rosa should resign from the committee chairmanship if he has any sense of honor and propriety but that’s obviously expecting too much from a man who is up to his neck in blood,” Robertson said.

As this is unlikely, La Viña suggested that it would’ve been better if Dela Rosa inhibited from Senate probes into the war on drugs, as it will affect the credibility and independence of the chamber.

“It’s possible that they will no longer investigate the matter if he is still chairperson of the committee. It may end up in whitewashing too – both of which are very bad outcomes and will not do well,” La Viña said.

“For the war on drugs, he (Dela Rosa) should just inhibit absolutely. If the Senate would lead an investigation, they should let other committees do it instead,” he said.

La Viña said that it could be under the powerful committee on justice and human rights, which is currently headed by Senator Richard Gordon, or the committee on social justice, which is headed by detained Senator Leila de Lima.

As of June 30 this year, the government said that the anti-illegal drug campaign has claimed only 5,500 lives. The Commission on Human Rights said that the total figure is more than 5 times higher or more than 27,000 people dead. – Rappler.com

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Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.