Tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte insists the International Criminal Court has no legal jurisdiction over him
“Forget the laws on human rights”, the president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte said during his election campaign back in 2016.
“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 go out. Because I’d kill you.”
And he has. Soon after President Duterte launched a deadly campaign against narcotics networks operating in the country, his campaign has led to the killings of thousands of people, including hundreds of women and children, some of whom were as little as 20-month-old.
But Fatou Bensouda, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC), wants to make sure justice is served before stepping down from his post this week.
The prosecutor asked judges at the world's only permanent war crimes court to authorise an investigation into the extrajudicial killings of civilians by police between 2016 and 2019.
"I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed... in the context of the government of Philippines 'war on drugs' campaign," Bensouda, whose nine-year term as the court’s chief prosecutor ends this week, said in a statement.
"The available information indicates that members of the Philippine National Police, and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians" during the period under investigation during that time”, the prosecutor Bensouda said.
The Philippines officially left ICC in 2019 after the court launched a preliminary examination into its brutal campaign. But, under its statute, the ICC has jurisdiction for crimes committed while a country was a member until a year after it sought to withdraw.
Despite that, the president's spokesperson Harry Roque insists that since the government of the Philippines is no longer a member, it will not cooperate.
Roque said police used appropriate force and there was "no intention to target and kill civilians'', adding that the probe is "legally erroneous and politically motivated."
Brutal “war on drugs” campaign
More than 6,000 people mostly from poor and marginalized communities have been killed in over 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, according to official data. But the police report last November stated the death toll as 8,000, although human rights groups estimate it could be several times higher.
“Drug war” killings, however, increased last year by more than 50 percent during the early months of the pandemic.
The crackdown is Duterte's signature policy initiative which he defends fiercely despite the domestic and international criticism. He was elected in 2016 on the campaign promise of eradicating the drug problem. To live up to people's expectations, he went berserk. He ordered police to kill drug suspects if their lives were in danger, and passed draconian law to shield police officers from legal proceedings.
The identification of suspected drug dealers in the country is open to abuses and misconduct.
Many suspects have been put on "drug watch lists" by local officials and then visited by police at their homes. The situation often ends in a deadly shooting that officers claim was self-defence, saying suspects resist arrests and become violents.
Amnesty International said the ICC investigation is a "landmark step".
"This announcement is a moment of hope for thousands of families in the Philippines who are grieving those lost to the government's so-called "war on drugs", Amnesty head Agnes Callamard said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the court had "dealt a blow" for Duterte's "presumption of impunity" for the killings.
In an address recorded this week before the news of Bensouda's request broke, Duterte called on human rights organisations to take a closer look into his war on drugs.
"You would notice that there are really people who die almost daily because they fought back," he said, warning drug dealers: "Do not destroy the country. I will kill you."
The tough-talking Duterte has repeatedly claimed the ICC has no jurisdiction over him and that he will not cooperate with what he has called an "illegal" probe. He even threatened to arrest Bensouda, calling her “that black woman”.
But Duterte said he is willing to go behind bars if proven guilty in the Philippine judicial system.
"If the court says that I should go to jail, I will go to jail. That's no problem. I did what I embarked to do," he said in a televised speech in December 2020.
Judges at the International Criminal Court have 120 days to issue a decision on the prosecutor’s request.
Although Gambian lawyer Bensouda’s term at the ICC ends on Tuesday, she said that "any authorised investigation in the Philippines will fall to my able successor, Mr Karim Khan, to take forward".
Britain's Khan will be sworn in on Wednesday with a host of other challenges including a probe into Israel's conduct in Palestinian territories.