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Duterte drug war

Protesters in Manila on December 10, 2017—Human Rights Day—hold up photos showing half the faces of victims of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. (Photo: Ezra Acayan/Nur Photo via Getty Images)

ICC Request to Probe Duterte's Brutal Drug War Hailed as 'Crucial Step for Justice'

The leader of one human rights group called the request "yet another damning indictment of the Duterte government's murderous policies that have killed—and continue to kill—thousands of Filipinos with impunity."

Brett Wilkins

Filipino and international human rights defenders joined opposition lawmakers and victims' relatives in the Philippines on Tuesday in welcoming outgoing International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's formal request for an investigation of the violent drug war waged by President Rodrigo Duterte over recent years.

"Duterte's brutal war on drugs normalized violence in our society and terrorized the population into silence. He must be held liable along with the police and military leadership that implemented the bloody campaign."
—Judy Pasimio, iDEFEND

In a statement Monday, Bensouda—who will be succeeded by British human rights lawyer Karim Khan on Wednesday—said that after reviewing the findings of a three-year preliminary probe on the situation in the Philippines, she has "determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed" during the government's anti-drug campaign.

"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 that time," said Bensouda. "My office has also reviewed information related to allegations of torture and other inhumane acts... which we believe require investigation."

In addition to Duterte, a report (pdf) published Monday by Bensouda's office also names Sen. Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa—a former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief—as well as former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II and unnamed death squad members as being involved in an "apparent" policy of extrajudicial killings.

"These extrajudicial killings, perpetrated across the Philippines, appear to have been committed pursuant to an official state policy of the Philippine government," the report states.

"Police and other government officials planned, ordered, and sometimes directly perpetrated extrajudicial killings," it adds. "They paid police officers and vigilantes bounties for extrajudicial killings. State officials at the highest levels of government also spoke publicly and repeatedly in support of extrajudicial killings, and created a culture of impunity for those who committed them."

Furthermore, the report says that police "planted evidence at crimes scenes, produced false or misleading incident reports, and took other measures... to conceal the manner in which the killings occurred and to support claims of self-defense."

Bensouda said the alleged offenses date back to Duterte's tenure as vice mayor and then mayor of Davao City, during which he was dubbed the "death squad mayor" by opponents and human rights groups for overseeing the killing of over 1,000 alleged criminals and street children.

While campaigning for the presidency, Duterte admitted ties to Davao death squads, while warning that his administration would be "a bloody one" in which he would kill up to 100,000 criminals if elected.

PNP officials admit to killing 7,884 people they claim were suspected drug dealers. Human rights groups, however, estimate the number of people killed at 27,000 to 30,000, many of them victims of vigilante-style killings.

Malacañang Palace—the Filipino presidential residence and workplace—responded to Bensouda's announcement by vowing to never cooperate with the ICC if it proceeds with the probe.

"I believe the decision to move forward into a formal investigation stage is legally erroneous and politically motivated," palace spokesperson Harry Roque Jr. told reporters, according to The Manila Times.

"We will not cooperate because we are no longer [a] member of the ICC," said Roque, referring to the country's 2019 withdrawal from the court's governing Rome Statute (pdf).

"How dare you say that the Philippines' legal system is not working?" Roque added.

"I am happy because I realized that justice never sleeps."
—Normita Lopez, victim's mother

Families of victims killed in the government's drug war hailed Bensouda's request for an investigation.

"I am happy because I realized that justice never sleeps," Normita Lopez, whose 23-year-old son was killed in May 2017 for allegedly resisting arrest during an anti-drug sting operation, told Reuters.

Randy delos Santos, uncle of Kian delos Santos—a 17-year-old whose 2017 murder and framing by police drew international attention—also welcomed the ICC probe request, telling Reuters that "there are many who died."

"I feel the pain of other families," he said.

Filipino human rights defenders called on the Duterte administration to cooperate with any ICC investigation. According to The Manila Times, Jacqueline De Guia, spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), said the independent constitutional agency "continues to advise the present Philippine government to participate in this process of seeking truth and justice for the human rights violations committed in the country."

"There is a need for the present administration to demonstrate genuine openness, transparency, and cooperation in its engagement with human rights investigation and accountability mechanisms," De Guia added.

In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) issued a statement saying Bensouda's request "recognizes the urgency of the situation where extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, rape, and torture, including those of children and minors, continue to be perpetrated with institutionalized impunity."

Judy Pasimio, an iDEFEND spokesperson, told Rappler—an online news site previously targeted by the Duterte administration for publishing critical stories, including about the drug war—that "Duterte's brutal war on drugs normalized violence in our society and terrorized the population into silence. He must be held liable along with the police and military leadership that implemented the bloody campaign."

Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of the human rights group Karapatan, called Bensouda's request a "long-awaited step toward justice and accountability."

"Moreover, it is yet another damning indictment of the Duterte government's murderous policies that have killed—and continue to kill—thousands of Filipinos with impunity," Palabay added.

Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of the global human rights group Amnesty International, said in a statement that Bensouda's 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.'"

"This is a much-awaited step in putting murderous incitement by President Duterte and his administration to an end," Callamard continued.

"State-sanctioned killing and incitement to violence by government officials has become the norm under the Duterte administration," she added. "Considering the Philippine government's role in these ceaseless killings and the absolute impunity which prevails in the country, the ICC investigation is a crucial step for justice to move forward."

Opposition lawmakers in the Philippines also expressed support for an ICC probe. Rep. Carlos Zarate of the Bayan Muna party-list—part of the left-wing Makabayan party—said in a statement that "this may send shock waves to enablers of this bloody campaign, but to the relatives and family of the victims, to human rights advocates, we welcome this positive development."

Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) alliance, said that "justice has been a long time coming for the thousands of victims [of] extrajudicial killings in the Philippines under Duterte."

"The ICC intervention must be reinforced by greater efforts from the international community, starting with the U.N. Human Rights Council."
—Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International

"The Duterte regime thinks it can avoid liability by withdrawing from the Rome Statute, when it is clear that the ICC retains jurisdiction for crimes committed prior to the withdrawal," Reyes added. "The Duterte regime would like us to believe it is a victim of political persecution when the real victims here are the thousands who died at the hands of police and military forces."

Bensouda's request for an ICC probe places pressure on the United Nations Human Rights Council to step up efforts to hold the Duterte administration accountable for its abuses.

"The prosecutor's announcement puts President Duterte and others involved in this murderous campaign firmly in the crosshairs of justice. But the ICC intervention must be reinforced by greater efforts from the international community, starting with the U.N. Human Rights Council," asserted Amnesty's Callamard.

"The U.N. Human Rights Council must launch its long overdue investigation into the Philippines to examine crimes under international law and other serious violations of human rights committed over the full duration of the Duterte administration, including as part of the so-called 'war on drugs,'" she added. "The perpetrators and architects of these crimes must be held to account."

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