ICC’s Suspension of Probe into Philippine Drug War Upsets Human Rights Groups

Camille Elemia
ICC’s Suspension of Probe into Philippine Drug War Upsets Human Rights Groups Philippine activists protest near the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila against President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war as he starts his final year in office, June 30, 2021.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Human rights activists in the Philippines are distressed that the International Criminal Court has agreed to suspend its probe into President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, calling Manila’s deferral request a “ruse” and its latest tactic to avoid prosecution.

Two months after it authorized a full-blown investigation into thousands of extrajudicial killings during the Duterte administration’s crackdown on narcotics, the Hague-based ICC announced last week it was temporarily halting the probe to assess a request from the Philippines for the court to defer to Manila’s own investigation into the drug war.

“The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request. The prosecution will, however, continue its analysis of information already in its possession, as well as of any new information it may receive from third parties,” Karim Khan, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, said in a statement issued Nov. 18.

Human rights groups and opposition members denounced the Philippine government’s claims of its own investigation into the alleged extrajudicial killings – the primary basis for the deferral request – which the Department of Justice announced last month.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, which represents some of the people killed in the Philippine drug, urged the ICC “not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration.”

“The Duterte government … has obviously, but not surprisingly, changed tack from its previously obstinate position to deny, then to deflect and divert, and now to defer and delay,” Edre Olalia, the union’s secretary-general, told BenarNews.

By asking for a remedy provided by the court, President Duterte “is practically recognizing its jurisdiction,” Olalia said, referring to the ICC.

Duterte had long said he did not recognize the ICC. In 2018, he pulled the Philippines from an international treaty that established the court.

“From all indications, the request for deferment appears to be not bona fide but a self-serving ruse,” Olalia said, adding that the actions by the ICC in recent months had given families of victims a “faint glimmer of hope.”

“We cannot take that away from them now,” he said.

The Philippines, through its Ambassador to the Netherlands, J. Eduardo Malaya, sent its deferral request on Nov. 10, informing the ICC that Manila was “investigating or has investigated” the national police members and others implicated in the alleged crimes against humanity.

“The Court may only exercise jurisdiction where national legal systems fail to do so, which is certainly not the case in the Philippines,” Malaya said in a six-page letter addressed to Khan, the chief prosecutor.

The envoy cited the review of 52 cases of drug-related killings, which he said signals “the start of the Department of Justice’s review of over 6,000 administrative cases,” pending before the internal police investigation unit.

Malaya also cited the department’s probe into “more than 300 cases” pending with the National Prosecution Service.

“Beyond the conduct of investigations, the Philippine government is likewise keen on ensuring the successful prosecution of cases that have been filed or may be filed in court against erring [police] members and others within its jurisdiction,” Malaya said in his letter.

‘Balancing act’

Romel Regalado Bagares, a Filipino lawyer who was part of a group that represented drug-war victims, said the ICC suspension was not a win for the government since the prosecutor would continue to work on information already gathered.

“Within the same period, the ICC is also entitled to receive updates from the Philippine government on the conduct and results of the investigation. And these updates will also help the prosecutor do its analysis on the Philippine situation,” Bagares, a member of the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court, told BenarNews on Tuesday.

He said it was all a part of a “balancing act,” with the ICC recognizing a need to balance state sovereignty and international accountability.

The ICC investigation covers alleged crimes committed under Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign from July 1, 2016, to March 16, 2019, and under the so-called vigilante group, Davao Death Squad, when he was mayor of Davao City from Nov. 1, 2011, to June 30, 2016.

The Free Legal Assistance Group, another lawyers group that represents drug-war victims in court, wrote to Khan on Sunday to block the government’s request, saying the 52 cases being investigated is less than 0.3 percent of the estimated 12,000 to 30,000 people killed under the drug war.

The government claims the death toll is much lower – about 8,000.

“The DOJ investigation did not include any findings or conclusions, but mere observations, largely on the lack – or paucity – of documents provided by the PNP. Witnesses or survivors were not interviewed; family members did not participate in the DOJ investigation. Even worse, not a single case was referred for prosecution,” the group said in its letter.

Over the weekend, detained opposition Sen. Leila de Lima said no Duterte government-led investigation “will result in the meaningful and genuine prosecution” of those guilty because these are the same people who allowed these crimes to continue.

“We simply have to repose our trust in the Office of the ICC prosecutor and the ICC institutional mechanisms to achieve true and complete justice for the victims of Duterte’s crimes against humanity,” said de Lima, a staunch government critic who was jailed over what she claims are made-up charges.

Meanwhile, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch called the Philippine government’s assertion regarding its investigation “an absurd claim.”

“The reality is that impunity is the norm under President Duterte, which is why the ICC needs to investigate. Let’s hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is,” Brad Adams said in a statement over the weekend.

Earlier this year, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that the country was still obliged to cooperate with the ICC should it launch a formal probe into the drug war – a ruling that the presidential office publicly dismissed.

The government said that its official correspondence with the ICC did not mean that it recognized the court’s jurisdiction.

“It should be stressed that the government’s communication to the ICC was conditioned on the fact that in making that communication, the Philippine government was not waiving its position regarding the ICC’s lack of jurisdiction,” acting spokesman Karlo Nograles said on Saturday.

Nevertheless, he said, the presidential office welcomes “the judiciousness of the new ICC prosecutor” and trusts that the matter will be resolved in favor of the government.


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