War on Drugs
Since taking office in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has conducted a nationwide crackdown against narcotics, more commonly known as a ‘war on drugs’. Widespread and systematic extrajudicial killing as a crime solution (especially drug-related crime) was the cornerstone of his presidential campaign. Upon his electoral victory in May 2016, Duterte announced to a crowd of more than 300,000 citizens:
“If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I'll kill you.”
His ruthless campaign led to the death of over 12,000 Filipinos to date, mostly from impoverished urban areas, and at least 3,000 of those killings have been attributed to the Philippine National Police. Duterte and other senior officials have instigated and incited the killings in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute―the International Criminal Court’s founding treaty―and are potentially liable to prosecution before the Court. During his campaign and later on as president, he repeatedly urged police and encouraged civilians to kill purported drug dealers and users in his nationally televised speeches.
The severely overcrowded Quezon City jail in Manila, pictured in 2016.
Photo credit: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-05/un-philippines-war-on-drugs-report/12325328
Research by Human Rights Watch has also found that the Philippine National Police are falsifying evidence to justify the unlawful killings. Despite growing calls for an investigation, Duterte has vowed to continue the anti-narcotics campaign.
Duterte’s ‘Reign of Terror’
Photo credit: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-48250388
In his ‘State of the Nation’ address in July 2021, he addressed the ICC and responded to the Court’s preliminary examinations by saying: “I have never denied [the war on drugs], and the ICC can record it. Those who destroy my country – I will kill you,” he said.
His deadly campaign is described by the country’s Catholic leaders as a “reign of terror”. Thousands of killings were also reportedly carried out by unidentified assailants
(sometimes referred to as ‘vigilantes’ or ‘unknown gunmen’) emboldened by Duterte's rhetoric, which took place in the context of, or in connection with, the government’s anti-drug campaign. Only very few of the thousands of cases reported were prosecuted.
The Phillippines in the ICC
In response to the initial move of the ICC to look into the war on drugs in the Philippines, Duterte withdrew the Philippines’ membership from the ICC in March 2018 to avert its jurisdiction: the decision came into force a year later in 2019. The Court, however, reaffirmed that it still has jurisdiction over the alleged crimes committed during the time when the Philippines was still a signatory to the Rome Statute.
When Duterte announced he was going to secede membership from the Court, he defended his crackdown, stating it was “lawfully directed against drug lords and pushers who have … destroyed the present generation, especially the youth”.
In March 2021, The Philippine Supreme Court dismissed a petition initiated by six Filipino Senators that sought to invalidate President Duterte’s unilateral withdrawal from the ICC and argued that Duterte’s actions were illegal and done without Senate approval. Despite the withdrawal, the ICC has been receiving testimony from activists and lawyers calling for Duterte’s international indictment―the Court has now responded.
Earlier this month in September 2021, the International Criminal Court formally authorised an official investigation/ probe into crimes against humanity, dealing a moral victory to human rights defenders and families of victims killed, including at least 73 children, with the youngest just five months old, according to a UN investigation. The ICC stated there was a “reasonable basis” to proceed with the probe, noting that the legal element of the crime against humanity of murder has been met in Article 7(1)(a), torture in Article 7(1)(f) and other inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to physical or mental health in Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute, in connection to the war on drugs campaign launched throughout the country.
Photo credit: https://www.rt.com/news/534931-philippines-duterte-icc-war-drugs/
Regardless of the fact that the ICC had been barred from the Phillippines in the past by Duterte, and regardless of the fact that the state refuses to cooperate with the Court in any capacity, the ICC will still be pursuing a probe against the breaches of international criminal law.
It is important to note that whilst the relevant crimes appear to have continued after the Philippines left the ICC, the Court is limited to investigating crimes suspected to have occurred while the Philippines was still a member of the Court.
As the investigation proceeds, this article will continue to be updated with new information on the issue, legal updates, and judgments made by the ICC.