ICC finds the Philippines likely committed rights abuses in war on drugs, Manila rejects court

Photo: VOCAL-NY (Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With the Philippines refusing to accept the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction, it is unlikely that the court will be able to hold Duterte’s government to account.

By Umair Jamal

The International Criminal Court (ICC) said on December 14 that there is “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s years-long so-called war on drugs.

Duterte, who assumed office in 2016, promised a ruthless war against drugs and his campaign has left thousands of people dead.

The findings are likely to have major implications for the Philippines’ foreign policy, partially the country’s relationship with the United States.

However, at this point, is unclear if the ICC can hold the current Philippine government accountable as Duterte has refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: ACE MORANDANTE/PPD / Public domain

What are the findings of the ICC report?

The primary focus of the ICC investigation was aimed at collecting evidence on crimes allegedly committed in the Philippines between July 1 2016 and March 16 2019 in the context of the “war on drugs”. Particularly, the study focused on allegations that “President Duterte and senior members of law enforcement agencies and other government bodies actively promoted and encouraged the killing of suspected or purported drug users and/or dealers” and that “members of law enforcement, including particularly the [Philippine National Police (PNP)], and unidentified assailants have carried out thousands of unlawful killings throughout the Philippines.”

The report asserts that out of the thousands killed in operations for the war on drugs, some executions thought to be committed by private citizens or groups “were planned, directed and/or coordinated by members of the PNP, and/or were actually committed by members of law enforcement who concealed their identity and took measures to make the killings appear to have instead been perpetrated by vigilantes.”

The ICC’s report acknowledges that the Philippine government has claimed killings during the war on drugs have been justified but noted that “such narrative has been challenged by others, who have contended that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and disproportionate under the circumstances, as to render the resulting killings essentially arbitrary, or extrajudicial, executions.”

In addition to killings, the report also alleges that individuals have been subjected to serious ill-treatment and abuses prior to being killed by state actors.

In many incidents, relatives of the victims witnessed the killings, thereby experiencing serious mental health impacts.

The report also concluded that in many incidents, “members of law enforcement raped women who were apparently targeted because of their personal relationships to individuals alleged to have been involved in drug activities.”

While the Philippines’ withdrew from the ICC in 2019, the country was party to the Rome Statute, which established the court.

Duterte spokesman Harry Roque told reporters that ICC officials “can do what they want to do.” “We do not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC,” he said.

The International Criminal Court’s headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands. Photo: OSeveno, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Foreign policy consequences for President Duterte’s government over the issue

The ICC’s findings on Duterte’s war on drugs are likely to hurt the Philippines’ ties with many countries, particularly the incoming administration in the United States. While countries with poor human rights conditions like China and Russia may not pay attention to the ICC’s inquiry, Western countries are likely to take up the issue.

In September, the European Union Parliament condemned the alarming extrajudicial killings committed during the Duterte government’s war on drugs. The EU Parliament also acknowledged a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report which condemned Duterte’s war on drugs for its “widespread and systematic killings.”

The 2020 report from the UN human rights office said the government’s “focus on national security, countering terrorism and illegal drugs” has also resulted in “arbitrary detention, persistent impunity and the vilification of dissent.”

The Philippines’ relationship with the United States is likely to deteriorate further in the coming months as President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy is set to place more significance on human rights than did Donald Trump’s administration. Already, Washington’s condemnation of Duterte’s war on drugs has created tensions between the two countries. In 2016, Duterte told former US president Barack Obama that he can “go to hell” over his criticism of the Philippines’ drug policy enforcement.

According to the ICC’s report, a final decision on a formal ICC investigation into the issue could come in the first half of 2021, though the coronavirus pandemic continues to play a role in delaying the process.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15