Current vice president faces uphill political battle in crowded field to succeed populist incumbent.
In June of 2019, police officers in the Philippines conducted an undercover operation against two suspected drug dealers in the suburb of Manila.
In the course of the operation, authorities claimed the suspects engaged them in a gunfight, shooting one officer in the neck and killing him. The two suspects were also killed.
A three-year-old child, the daughter of one of the suspects, was caught in the crossfire. She was hit in the head and later died in the hospital. Police said she was used as a “human shield” by her father. But the child’s mother disputed the report, saying her family was already asleep when police started shooting, and that her husband was unarmed. She later filed murder charges against the police.
Ronald dela Rosa had just assumed his Senate seat when the incident happened. He had previously served as President Rodrigo Duterte’s police chief and top enforcer of the war on drugs, which by then had already left at least 6,600 people dead.
Asked about the rules of conduct in the drug war and the death of an innocent child, the first time senator quipped in a mix of Tagalog and English, “It’s an imperfect world … sh*t happens.
“If you are a police officer, do you really want a child to be caught in a crossfire? Never. Honest to goodness, there are really collateral damage.”
As the senator pulled off a surprise on Friday, filing his candidacy to run for Philippines president in 2022 barely 30 minutes before the deadline, rights groups are raising the alarm about his human rights record and the perception of impunity he represents.
Dela Rosa’s candidacy shows the “doubling down on the brutal policy” of the deadly war within the “Duterte clique”, Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
“There’s this refusal to acknowledge the problem of the drug war,” he said, adding that the senator’s candidacy ensures that “they protect themselves from accountability” should he prevail in the elections.
“They want to have some kind of insurance to protect themselves after 2022.”
Conde also said the drug war policy gives dela Rosa “significant political capital” as the ruling party’s candidate.
“Apart from that, not promising to continue the drug war would be a repudiation of the Duterte policy. So, they will stand by it.”
The senator has long fuelled controversy.
In an earlier incident when police officers were accused of killing an unarmed teenager, dela Rosa had also defended his men, saying that while the incident was “overkill”, authorities did not intentionally kill the high school student. Three police officers were later convicted of murder in the teen’s 2017 death.
The then-police chief had also rebuffed a 2018 order by the Supreme Court to release data of the drug war and other details of police operations, citing the safety of the officers involved.
Dela Rosa, who briefly served as the country’s prisons chief, had drawn criticism when he told jail guards that they should “be ready to kill” and not be intimidated by prisoners, adding, “I hate cowards”.
In 2016, police officers under him were accused of killing a town mayor who was already in detention for drug-related charges. Dela Rosa had also issued a police memo in 2016 ordering the “neutralisation” of drug suspects in connection with the agency’s “Double Barrel” campaign against drug suspects.
Sen. Bato dela Rosa’s own words that he is willing to give way to Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte should she run for president could be evidence he has no intention of running, a ground to have him declared nuisance candidate, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal says.#ANCRundown https://t.co/oCzbUVDGbS
— Mike Navallo (@mikenavallo) October 11, 2021
‘Flippant attitude towards human rights’
Duterte’s war on drugs is now a subject of an investigation in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Aside from Duterte, the only other top official specifically mentioned in the pretrial chamber investigation is dela Rosa.
The latest government data released in June shows that as of the end of April 2021, police and other security forces have killed at least 6,117 suspected drug dealers during its operations. But government figures cited by the UN in June 2020 already showed at least 8,600 deaths.
Human rights groups say the number of deaths could be between 27,000 and 30,000. They accuse the authorities of carrying out summary executions that killed innocent suspects, including children.
Duterte has dismissed the ICC investigation and has promised to block any of the prosecutors from coming to the country.
Also subject in the investigation were the summary executions in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte served as mayor for several years. Dela Rosa served as Davao police chief under Duterte from 2012 to 2013. Prior to that, he also served in various police roles in Davao.
Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, now runs the city, and some analysts suspect dela Rosa may only be a seat-warmer for her candidacy. Under the country’s election rules, late entries are allowed until November 15 if a declared candidate withdraws and gives way to a substitute candidate.
When the ICC investigation was announced in September, dela Rosa responded during a Senate committee hearing saying, “Being a Filipino, I’d rather be tried, convicted, and hanged before a Filipino court rather than being tried, convicted, and hanged before a foreign court.”
He failed to mention that the ICC at The Hague prohibits capital punishment, and the Philippines has abolished the practice.
Edre Olalia is president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a group that frequently represents human rights victims. He told Al Jazeera that dela Rosa’s candidacy “obviously bodes ill for the respect, promotion and protection of human rights” in the Philippines.
“His record and his attitude towards serious allegations [of human rights violations], the nonchalant and even flippant way he responds to these allegations before the ICC – that reflects a lot about his political position,” Olalia said.
He adds that dela Rosa’s candidacy “plays into the script that he wants to deflect any accountability even at the level of the ICC”.
“Even if he is not a placeholder [candidate], he will still benefit if he becomes president, although remote as it is now. But you will never really know.”
‘A mockery of the process’
Dela Rosa has not clearly ruled out that he could step aside in favour of Duterte-Carpio, but insists he is qualified to become the country’s next president.
Shortly after he filed his candidacy on Friday, the senator told reporters in Manila that he only learned that he had been picked as the ruling PDP-Laban party’s presidential candidate two hours before the 5pm deadline (09:00 GMT).
“That’s the strategy. It’s because when you announce early, then you’ll become an early target as well. That’s why we kept it under wraps,” he explained.
But when asked if he is willing to give way to Duterte-Carpio, he answered, “Then, that’s even better. This is a party decision. This is not my personal decision.”
In a separate interview on Monday, dela Rosa said that since Duterte-Carpio’s “winnability is very high”, he is “willing to give way for her if the people don’t want to accept me as a serious candidate”.
In response to dela Rosa’s statement, the rights group Karapatan said the senator’s decision made a “mockery” of the elections process.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Karapatan referred to the announcement as “a shameless tactic we know too well to be ripped straight from the playbook” of Duterte when he ran for president in 2016.
“There are more sinister plots that may definitely play out in the coming days and months. We cannot discount the possibility of Sara Duterte eventually running either as president by substituting for [dela Rosa], or as vice president to Marcos Jr,” the group added, referring to the son of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who is also running for president.
Olalia, the NUPL president, added that if it were proven that dela Rosa was fronting for another candidate, it would show the “shameless trivialisation of a solemn right that was fought for by generations before us”.
“They are looking at it like it’s a game rather than a serious political exercise. They are playing us for fools.”
Aside from dela Rosa, those who have declared their intention to run for president include the opposition leader, Vice President Leni Robredo, international boxing champion Senator Manny Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Another lesser-known Duterte ally, Foreign Affairs Deputy Secretary Ernesto Abella, also declared that he would run for president. Abella served as Duterte’s spokesman before he was appointed to the foreign affairs office.