Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will not cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) when it investigates alleged crimes against humanity in his “war on drugs,” his lawyer said Thursday, hours after the pre-trial chamber announced its landmark probe.
The investigation is a major victory for human rights monitors who have decried the lack of accountability in a crackdown that has killed thousands. It could see Duterte and other Philippine officials become the subjects of arrest warrants as the chamber seeks justice for victims—8,000 killed according to the government’s body count, and up to 30,000 according to activists.
But a lawyer for the president’s office quickly dismissed the probe, saying it “neither bothers nor troubles” the government, which claims the court has no jurisdiction.
“Our position concerning the proceedings before the International Criminal Court remains. The foreign institution has no—as it never had—jurisdiction over the affairs of the Republic of the Philippines and its people,” Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
The ICC probe is moving forward despite the Duterte camp’s protests.
In their 41-page resolution, three judges said they found basis to proceed with the full-on investigation requested by former ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in June. That was based on her office’s preliminary findings that crimes against humanity may have been committed in the Philippines’ anti-narcotics campaign initiated by Duterte shortly after he took office in 2016.
The judges authorized the “commencement of the investigation into the situation in the Philippines… in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign.” The probe will be led by the new prosecutor, Karim Khan.
The court drew its decision from Bensouda’s findings, including 204 “representations” from drug war victims, which altogether documented the accounts of 1,530 individual victims and 1,050 families who were affected by the killings. The judges said 94 percent of the victims who made representations were in favor of the investigation.
The chamber will look into drug war killings from when Duterte took power on July 1, 2016 until March 16, 2019, when he pulled the Philippines out of the Rome Statute, the treaty that governs the ICC, which is based in The Hague in the Netherlands. It will also investigate alleged extrajudicial killings in the southern Philippine city of Davao from November 1, 2011 to June 30, 2016, when Duterte was the mayor.
When he ran for president in 2016, Duterte promised a ruthless crackdown on crime, which he said stemmed from illegal drug use. “It will be bloody,” he said at the time. True enough, killings of purported drug suspects—mostly poor people from slum communities—began even right before he officially took office. The killings have outraged the international community but Duterte remains popular at home.
The ICC judges noted two general categories under which the killings fell: official anti-drug operations in which law enforcers claimed to have used lethal force in self-defense, and unofficial vigilante-style attacks.
Duterte has spoken publicly in defense of the drug war and encouraged police to kill drug suspects. He once said “extrajudicial killings” were his “only sin.” The judges said the preliminary probe took Duterte’s statements into account.
The government’s position on the probe is complicated by the fact that the ICC and the Philippine Supreme Court have both ruled that the ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed when the country was a party to the Rome Statute, and that authorities are obliged to cooperate with a probe if one is conducted.
But Panelo insisted that the Philippines’ own justice system is capable of prosecuting drug war offenses, so the ICC’s intervention is unwarranted. In their ruling, ICC judges noted that there have been no convictions for drug war killings in the country besides one case.
“The International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into brutal crimes in the Philippines offers a much-needed check on President Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly ‘war on drugs,’” said Human Rights Watch senior Philippines researcher Carlos Conde.
“It is with overwhelming joy and trepidation that we, with the families of victims of the ‘war on drugs,’ step into the next stage of the ICC proceedings. The ICC decision to investigate any crime committed under the mantle of [Duterte’s] ‘war on drugs’ is a major step to justice,” the National Union of People’s Lawyers said in a statement.
Former Senator Antonio Trillanes, who helped initiate the filing of the “communication” or notice to prompt an ICC probe in April 2017, said the opening of the probe is “a step closer to attaining justice for the loved ones of the victims of extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration.”
“To Duterte and his cohorts, this is another step closer to prison,” Trillanes added.