Roque on being spokesman: I accepted the job to advise Duterte on human rights
MANILA, Philippines — Many raised their eyebrows when Deputy Minority leader Harry Roque, a well-known human rights lawyer, agreed to become the new spokesperson to President Rodrigo Duterte, who has repeatedly expressed his contempt for human rights.
But for Roque, who, in the past, handled high-profile cases that placed the country’s human rights situation under scrutiny, accepting Duterte’s offer required “much deliberation and careful consideration.”
In a statement on Saturday, Roque explained that he agreed to be Duterte’s mouthpiece in order to directly talk to the maverick leader about “key human rights issue,” noting that as a member of Congress, his voice was “limited.”
He also said he was not “condoning” the government’s bloody drug war by joining the Duterte administration as he maintained that he remains a staunch supporter of human rights as “demonstrated” by his track record as a legislator.
“By taking this position, I hope to be able to advise the President directly regarding the manner and methods he has used to tackle the problem of drugs. I have already expressed my willingness to serve as an adviser on the matter,” Roque said.
“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,” he added.
“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.”
Duterte has raised international concerns for activating his fierce drug war as part of his campaign promise to use deadly force to wipe out crime and narcotics.
Human rights watchdogs said most of the fatalities are extrajudicial killings committed by cops and unknown assailants. But the government has vehemently denied this, saying the police are only killing in self-defense while drug ring members are silencing potential witnesses.
During Roque’s birthday party in Davao City on Friday night, Duterte said the lawmaker is expected to formally take over the tasks of spokesman after his presidential trip to Japan from October 29 to 31.
Roque is likewise given a rank of “secretary” and is set to attend his first Cabinet meeting on November 6.
He will be replacing spokesperson Ernesto Abella, who has a rank of undersecretary and is a pastor by profession.
Being Duterte’s new point man, Roque will bring a fresh face and voice to Malacañang’s communications team that soft-speaking Abella used to co-manage with Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar.
Roque will also face the tough job of putting out the fire caused by Duterte’s fiery, off-the-cuff remarks and controversial policy statements.
‘Masquerading as a minority leader’
Some members of the minority bloc, however, saw Roque’s appointment as an end to his “masquerade” as a human rights advocate.
“As a self-proclaimed human rights advocate, I wish him luck in defensing the horrendous human rights record of this administration,” Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat said in a statement.
“The appointment also releases him from the challenge of masquerading as a minority leader,” Baguilat added.
Separately, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said Roque’s upcoming role in Duterte’s Cabinet “confirms his dubious role in defending the president’s wayward policies.”
“The charade is now over as Roque is liberated and obligated to be the president’s official apologist,” Lagman said.
“To be the communications czar of Duterte, one has to be an expert mortician undertaking the post-mortem embellishment of the president’s crude and unfounded pronouncements and policies, and must be able to subdue one’s conscience in order to emote platitudes,” he added.
Roque teaches law at the University of the Philippines and was the head of Center for International Law, the Philippine-based human rights advocacy group whose lawyers represented the families of the victims of the Ampatuan Massacre and the kin of killed transgender woman Jennifer Laude, among others.
For acts inimical to the interest of Kabayan party-list group, officials of the group last January removed Roque as their first nominee to the House of Representatives.
Among the bases for Roque’s ouster was the November 2016 hearing at the House where he asked sexual questions of Ronnie Dayan, the driver and former lover of former justice secretary and now Sen. Leila de Lima, a vocal Duterte critic.
Kabayan officials also questioned Roque’s behavior, which was made without their prior approval, especially because such pronouncements tarnished the group’s principled advocacies, not to mention cast serious doubts on its ability to deliver its core advocacies.