President Rodrigo Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, accusing the body that launched a preliminary investigation last month into his administration’s deadly war on illegal drugs of outrageously attacking him.
Duterte, 72, said The Hague-based court wanted to paint him as a ruthless and heartless violator of human rights for the thousands of suspected drug addicts and pushers killed by the police since he assumed the presidency in 2016.
“It is apparent that the ICC is being utilized as a political tool against the Philippines,” Duterte said in a lengthy statement, arguing that the acts that his administration was accused of doing were not “genocide nor war crimes.”
“I therefore declare and forthwith give notice, as president of the republic of the Philippines, that the Philippines is withdrawing its ratification of the Rome statute [the treaty that established the ICC] effective immediately,” Duterte said.
Withdrawal from the ICC would take effect a year after notification, according to legal experts.
Duterte’s government has been antagonistic with the international community in recent weeks.
The Department of Justice last week confirmed that it had included U.N. special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz on a list of 600 people whom it wanted to categorize as terrorists. In response, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Duterte needed “to submit himself to some sort of psychiatric evaluation.”
Duterte said the ICC had violated due process and did not afford him the right to be presumed innocent by publicly announcing on Feb. 9 that it was investigating allegations that the Philippine police under his leadership had committed mass murder as part of his anti-drug campaign.
He said the allegations were “baseless, unprecedented and outrageous attacks on my person, as a well as against my administration, engineered by the officials of the United Nations.”
Duterte also hit back at U.N. special rapporteur Agnes Callamard and Zeid for openly criticizing his government.
His statement on Wednesday was a complete reversal from his remarks welcoming the probe last month, which, he said at the time, finally afforded him a chance to explain the drug war.
In February, Duterte also boasted that he was not perturbed by the complaint at the ICC, saying he was willing to be indicted and die a hero.
“Do not worry about me. I can face the ICC. If they want to indict me and convict me, fine. I will gladly do it for my country,” Duterte said then.
The ICC inquiry would seek to determine whether there was enough evidence to build a case against Duterte, who became president in 2016 on a promise to eliminate drug traffickers and pushers and dump their bodies into Manila Bay.
Since then, thousands have already been killed, including at least three local politicians, who were gunned down after police said they put up a fight.
The Philippine National Police counts more than 4,000 deaths – excluding deaths blamed on pro-government vigilantes – in the drug war. The official figures are lower than the estimated 12,000 deaths that rights groups have claimed.
Mastermind of a ruthless campaign
Duterte has been accused of masterminding a ruthless campaign to carry out extrajudicial killings stretching back to the 1980s, when as mayor of the southern city of Davao he had allegedly formed a group called the “Davao Death Squad.”
A former police officer who was a leader of that group and a self-confessed hitman who said he participated in the killing of several people – including some whose bodies were chopped up and thrown at sea – are Duterte’s chief accusers.
Chito Gascon, head of the independent Commission on Human Rights, said Duterte’s announcement on ICC was a significant setback to decades-old efforts globally to ensure accountability for perceived violations of human rights.
“The Philippines has historically been at the forefront of advancing international justice and this move constitutes a reversal that will be viewed as encouraging impunity to continue,” Gascon said.
Gascon said Duterte must show good faith by fully cooperating with the probe, adding that the government would be grossly mistaken when it insists that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in Manila.
“What it must do is show that it is willing and able to bring all perpetrators of human rights to justice,” Gascon said.
The deaths of three teenagers last year by police carrying out Duterte’s drug raids have galvanized the political opposition, including from the Catholic Church that in the past was instrumental in removing two presidents from power.
The killings forced Duterte to temporarily withdraw police from the campaign, but he reinstated them in December saying that the drug problem was too big for the campaign to be headed by a civilian-led agency.
But human rights group Karapatan (Rights) said Duterte’s decision Wednesday betrayed his fear of being investigated for the killings.
“He and his cohorts are not being denied due process, as his government did so with many urban poor dwellers, farmers and indigenous peoples killed under this regime’s campaigns,” the group said. “Yet, he speaks as if he is the one who was victimized.”
It said that Wednesday’s decision was a “classic Duterte move to cheat his way out of culpability and responsibility” resulting from the killings.
Harry Roque, a spokesman for the president, however, said that with the withdrawal, only two other countries were left with the ICC.
“This is the beginning of the end for the ICC,” Roque said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.