A senator who defended Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs before the United Nations was confirmed by fellow lawmakers Wednesday as the country’s new chief diplomat.
The Commission on Appointments, a joint congressional body, took less than five minutes to endorse the appointment of Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who despite losing the vice presidency as Duterte's running mate last year, has acted as his top defender in international forums. In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately.
In a brief acceptance speech, Cayetano vowed to keep helping Duterte achieve his pledge of keeping the country’s national interests, such as “territorial integrity and national security,” as his top concerns.
Cayetano said he would introduce initiatives aimed at “advocating and pushing for our national interest, strengthening our bilateral and multilateral relations with other countries and organizations around the world, and of course the protection, welfare and comfort of our Filipinos overseas, particularly our modern-day heroes.”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, noted that Cayetano’s confirmation was probably the shortest hearing held to recommend a Duterte cabinet official.
It came following the body’s highly divisive confirmation hearings that led to the sacking of Gina Lopez as head of the environment portfolio early this month. Lopez caught many by surprise when she moved to shut down many mining firms, some of which were backed by political families.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Cayetano was a “welcome addition to the president’s official family.”
“Secretary Cayetano’s experience and legal acumen shall enrich the leadership of the Department of Foreign Affairs and promote and enhance our international relations with the countries of the world,” Abella said.
Cayetano’s appointment also came amid territorial wrangling in the South China Sea, following reports Beijing was carrying on with expansion programs to militarize islands it controls.
Duterte has made it a point to appease China, and has even promised not to raise Manila’s victory last year at an international arbitration court that rejected Beijing’s expansive claims in the sea region. In exchange, Beijing has promised millions in loans and other financial assistance to the Philippines.
Cayetano, however, on Wednesday did not state his position on the South China Sea dispute, despite a report from a Chinese state-run newspaper that its military had installed a rocket-launcher system on a reef it occupies in the Spratly Islands.
The reef, called Fiery Cross and located west of the Philippines, is also claimed by Manila, Vietnam and China’s rival Taiwan.
Cayetano, a 46-year-old lawyer, comes from one of the Philippines’ well-entrenched political families.
His sister is a congresswoman and he has been in public office for more than half his life, serving as a town mayor before becoming a congressman and senator.
Last year, he campaigned as Duterte’s running mate, but lost. Adept at public speaking, Cayetano has been accompanying the president in his travels abroad since Duterte took power last year and has acted as an unofficial spokesman.
The trips, Cayetano said, had given him a chance to meet some of the 10 million Filipino expatriates, whom he said were hungry for change, rehashing Duterte’s campaign slogan.
Cayetano also led a delegation of Filipino officials in explaining Duterte’s war on drugs to the Universal Periodic Review carried out by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland.
In the U.N. review, he blasted local and international media for reporting alternative facts related to Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which has killed thousands since last year.
Contrary to what has appeared on the news, he said, Duterte’s government has placed human rights in high regard.
Cayetano also questioned U.N. special rapporteur Agnes Callamard’s surprise visit to the Philippines this month. While the U.N. official said that she undertook the trip in her private capacity, the government contended it was meant to signal that she was biased against the Duterte administration.
Officials have reported this month that 2,692 suspected drug users and dealers have been shot dead in police operations since Duterte came to power 10 months ago.
About 5,700 other drug-related killings were being investigated, many of them carried out by unknown vigilantes. Rights groups said the killings were sanctioned by police, a claim denied by Duterte.