Rights groups and advocates expressed dismay Sunday as the Philippines officially left the International Criminal Court, but vowed that investigations into thousands of killings under the three-year presidency of Rodrigo Duterte would not stop.
Amnesty International (AI) said the country’s withdrawal was but a “futile attempt to evade international justice.”
“The court will continue to investigate those responsible for crimes committed during the so-called war on drugs and has ways and means to investigate, even if the Philippines will not cooperate,” said Nicholas Baquelin, AI’s regional director.
Last year, the Philippine government informed the ICC, based in The Hague, Netherlands, about its intention to withdraw. Such action becomes effective one year after the notice is filed, according to ICC rules.
The government said that it was leaving because the country has a working justice system to prosecute rights cases and it is not necessary for complainants to go straight to the international body. Manila is only the second country after Burundi to quit the ICC.
Duterte, who took office in 2016 on an anti-crime platform and has since carried out a deadly anti-drugs war, faces two mass murder complaints filed at the ICC.
One was filed by a former police officer and a self-style assassin who accused Duterte of ordering the death of opponents and criminals when he was a mayor of the southern city of Davao. The second was filed by relatives of several people killed during the campaign.
Opposition Rep. Gary Alejano, an outspoken Duterte critic who is seeking a Senate seat in May, warned that the Philippine withdrawal “has wide and long-term implications and consequences.”
“From a domestic point of view, the withdrawal from the ICC will embolden our leaders to commit further human rights violations,” he said.
He stressed that a petition had been filed before the Supreme Court questioning the legality of the president’s withdrawal from the treaty that created the ICC, but it is likely moot now.
“From an international perspective, the president’s idea to withdraw signifies an act that goes against universal values other countries have adopted and fostered. Moreover, his act will restrict our country from receiving any foreign aid which requires as a condition the preservation and protection of human rights,” he said.
‘You cannot hide’
Alejano stressed that despite the withdrawal, Duterte would not be able to escape international scrutiny because the ICC “continues to maintain jurisdiction to investigate complaints for extra-judicial killings that were committed before the effectivity of the withdrawal.”
“You can withdraw but you cannot hide,” he said.
The government did not immediately respond Sunday to requests for comment.
Since Duterte took power in 2016, about 5,000 suspected drug dealers and addicts have been killed in what police described as shootouts during law-enforcement operations. AI and Human Rights Watch officials have said thousands of others were killed, but their deaths are considered under investigation or blamed on vigilantes.
In November 2018, three police officers were found guilty of the August 2017 murder of a teenager who was mistaken as a drug pusher, the first convictions of police found to be abusing the drug war.
The ICC withdrawal came three days after Duterte, who vowed a bloodier war on drugs in the remaining three years of his term, released a new list of 46 alleged “narcopoliticians.” The last was separate from a list of 150 local officials, judges, police and military officers previously named. Several people on the original list have been killed.
Neri Colmenares, a lawyer who represents the survivors of drug war victims who filed the ICC complaint, said impunity in the Philippines would likely worsen after its withdrawal from the world body.
“This is what is frightening with Duterte’s withdrawal from the ICC – extrajudicial killings would continue unabated,” he said, stressing that ordinary individuals and critics of the government would be subjected to continued harassment.
“Our withdrawal will further entrench impunity in the country,” he said.