MANILA - Not too long ago, Harry Roque was almost a fixture at the Supreme Court, filing cases of national consequence, suing generals and top officials. An activist and human rights lawyer, he represented the poor and the abused.
Soon, Roque is set to bring his legal and media savvy to the Malacañang briefing room. And as President Rodrigo Duterte’s new spokesperson, Roque says he intends to reinforce- not abandon- his human rights activism, even as he joins an administration heavily criticized over alleged human rights violations in the drug war.
“By accepting this position, I am not condoning the violence surrounding the government’s anti-drug campaign, nor do I intend to further the same,” said Roque in a statement Saturday morning.
"I considered the position with the specific purpose of getting an audience with the President to address key human rights issues in the Philippines," he said.
The administration has faced widespread criticism over deaths in the drug war, but it has repeatedly shot down allegations that it was behind summary killings.
Officials have explained that those killed in anti-drug operations- 3,800 per police figures- had all put up violent resistance. President Rodrigo Duterte recently tasked the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to lead the anti-drug campaign, putting the PNP in the back seat.
For Roque, joining the cabinet would not contradict his long-time advocacy. He said it was his stand for human rights that made him say “yes” to the President’s offer.
As a lawmaker, he said, his voice was “limited.” But as a cabinet member, he said he could give Duterte counsel on “the manner and methods he has used to tackle the problem of drugs.” He said he has “expressed his willingness to serve as an adviser on the matter.”
“I must also stress that my position on human rights has not changed. I am a firm advocate for the protection and preservation of fundamental human rights of all persons," said Roque, founder of human rights lawyers’ group Centerlaw and professor of constitutional law and public international law at the University of the Philippines.
CLARIFYING THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENTS
He said his mission as spokesperson is to be the voice of clarity amid the ambiguity that, as he described himself, surrounded Duterte’s words. It was such an important role that he agreed to give up his seat in Congress as sectoral representative for Kabayan Party-list.
He will succeed Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella on Nov. 6.
“By taking up this position, I intend to refocus the attention of the people more towards the fundamental position of the State, and less towards the manner by which such has been declared. Similarly, I am committing to reduce, if not totally eradicate, the impact of statements which appear to support genocide or violations of fundamental human rights,” said Roque.
He said the spokesperson’s role is key, citing how “the administration has repeatedly clarified and reinterpreted the remarks of the President,” in reference to several instances when Duterte’s earlier statements had to be explained by his spokespersons.
He also noted how “politicians who relentlessly criticize the administration are simply ignored and labeled as “destabilizers.”
“More often than not, the media and the Filipino people have looked to the spokesperson to determine the true intention behind the President’s statements. Thus, the spokesperson plays a pivotal role in confirming the policy of the State,” Roque said.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple said Roque’s credentials on international and human rights law may have been key in his selection as Duterte’s new spokesperson.
“The administration may be anticipating challenges coming from this direction, the UN (United Nations), Western States and possibly ICC (International Criminal Court)… The administration has been searching for a HR (human rights) person lately,” said Casiple, adding that Roque’s appointment did not come as a much of a surprise.
Roque is the only Philippine lawyer allowed to practice law at the ICC. In March, he said the ICC may not have jurisdiction over criminal charges filed against Duterte for alleged extrajudicial killings, even before Jude Sabio, lawyer of confessed hitman Edgar Matobato, sued the President for crimes against humanity at the international court.
Political science professor Edmund Tayao, meanwhile, said Roque’s selection is meant to enhance Palace communications.
“I think this move of the President is simply just to recalibrate the government’s communication. Rep. Roque is known as good with explaining issues [so] that difficult issues are better understood by the public,” he said.
Even before Roque's appointment was announced, Kabayan Party-list, which earlier removed him as its representative, welcomed his impending selection.
"[It] is a positive development for his public service career. Kabayan Party-list is happy with this exciting development as very few and select individuals are given the opportunity to work closely with, and speak on behalf of, the President," Kabayan Party-list secretary-general Joshua Sebastian said in a statement Wednesday.
"The podium there at Malacañang is clearly a more powerful position although it is appointive, not elective in nature."
He said the group is now preparing necessary documents for the proclamation of its third nominee to Congress, lawyer Ciriaco Calalang.
In January, Kabayan "removed" Roque as its representative over loss of trust and confidence, citing his media statements accusing state lawyers of corruption.
The party said Roque was removed due to "an overwhelming call among Kabayan Party-list members and supporters".
"The Board found Harry Roque's behavior, acts, and statements as severely damaging to the Party-list," the group’s statement read.
"Harry Roque's continued stay with Kabayan Party-list is inimical to its interest and long-term sustainability as a principled party-list."