Since 2016, several human rights violations have been and can be observed in the cases of extrajudicial killings (EJKs). Currently, activists and relatives of those who were killed still try to seek justice while the Duterte administration continues to take great pride in its bloody war on drugs.
Nearly two years after the Philippines withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC), a formal investigation has been authorized on the alleged EJKs by the administration. However, it turns out that ICC is not the only international body that tries to hold this administration accountable for its human rights violations.
Duterte’s relationship with ICC
In his first year, President Rodrigo Duterte was slammed by critics after his administration neglected due process and enabled violent killings of over a thousand Filipinos—causing the ICC’s former Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to probe into the country’s crackdown on illegal drugs.
This began the long investigation. However, Duterte and other high-ranking officials continue to receive impunity from prosecution despite the number of deaths. Since 2016, this tally has reached more than 6,000, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Meanwhile, humanitarian groups estimate the actual death toll to be much higher, reaching 30,000. Such circumstances prompted both ICC and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to look into the situation.
Duterte responded that threatening him with imprisonment was ridiculous, and he was “willing to rot in prison” for the sake of Filipinos. In the same year, he called ICC “useless” and expressed his sentiment in joining Russia regarding withdrawing from the international court.
“The ICC is one of those institutions that really [don’t] have the support of a lot of the more influential countries,” says Dr. John Philip Binondo, an assistant professorial lecturer from the Department of International Studies. He shares that this is due to international organizations often being in a difficult position as they work independently.
In 2018, ICC announced that they would conduct a preliminary examination of the current human rights situation in the Philippines. However, the year after, Duterte officially withdrew the Philippines from the court, stating that ICC does not have jurisdiction over him. He also claimed that the Rome Statute—which provides ICC’s structure and areas of jurisdiction—was never published in the Official Gazette; hence, for him, it never took effect. Then presidential spokesperson Harry Roque expressed support and argued that the said statute is a penal law and should be published in order to be valid.
Despite this, Karim Khan—who replaced Bensouda as ICC prosecutor in October 2021—states that he will continue to engage with national authorities in accordance with the principles of complementarity and their obligations under the Rome Statute.
Since ICC opened a formal investigation on the administration’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs, the government repeatedly responded, saying that they will not cooperate. The administration even went as far as asking ICC to stop their investigations and to allow local authorities to resolve the cited issues.
Binondo elaborates, however, that ICC does not operate that way, “A lot of times, institutions like the ICC give countries the benefit of the doubt. That’s why they suspended the investigation.”
Meanwhile, International Center for Transitional Justice Senior Expert Atty. Ruben Carranza clarifies that although the Philippine government has requested ICC to halt its investigations, the country is “still, in fact, cooperating.”
In terms of encountering trouble with having the Philippine government cooperate in international proceedings, ICC’s case is not isolated. Other international organizations have also faced difficulties in attempting to hold the Duterte-led Philippine government accountable for human rights violations.
In July 2019, UNHRC adopted a resolution that requested UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines. The report, which was eventually published in 2020, stated that at least 8,663 people had been killed in the Duterte administration’s drug war, where 208 human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists were recorded as casualties.
The Philippines and UN then launched the joint program on human rights in July 2021 “to promote and to protect human rights” in the country. However, Amnesty International Philippine Human Rights Officer Wilnor Papa notes that the program is still lacking in terms of holding the Philippine government accountable, “‘Pag nakita niyo ‘yung joint program, ‘yung mga gawain, parang checklist lang talaga. ‘Yung iba dun napaka-administrative, check lang–‘Okay, we did more than 70 percent. Yehey!'” He expounds that the said “checklist” from the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC) excludes the contributions and data from CHR and many other civil society organizations.
“[Meron daw] mga non-government organizations (NGOs) na nagsasabi na effective daw ‘yung war on drugs. So sino ‘yung mga NGOs na ‘yan? Wala naman silang ibinibigay,” he comments. “That’s how you know ‘yung gawi and I really don’t see that much value.”
(They said that there were NGOs that claimed that the war on drugs was effective. We asked who these NGOs were, but they could not provide any list.)
Additionally, the European Parliament threatened the country last September 2020 to temporarily remove the Philippines’ trade benefits with the European Union (EU) under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus. Should this take effect, numerous Philippine products will not have duty-free access to the EU market. However, Duterte announced that the Philippines would keep working with the EU on free trade and investment a year later.
According to Binondo, the reasons why the EU did not go forward with suspending the Philippines’ trade privilege is because of the upcoming 2022 national elections and Duterte’s recent statements that signify his upholding of human rights, especially during the 76th UN General Assembly.
Where do roads lead us?
With Duterte’s term nearing its end, the upcoming national elections will determine the next person in charge of the future of both ICC and the Philippine investigations on the drug war.
If the investigations pursue more smoothly after the country changes officials and Duterte and other people involved get convicted, consequences await such as imprisonment. However, at this time, nothing is guaranteed, and sending Duterte to jail remains to be “not so straightforward.”
In connection, Carranza discusses that apart from the next administration’s cooperation, Philippine courts must also take charge of processing these cases to aid the drug war victims’ families further.
“One of the possible steps that different families can take…is [to] file a case for crimes against humanity in Philippine courts,” Carranza suggests.
Meanwhile, assuming that the next administration is “ICC-friendly” and will be more cooperative, Papa says that the process might become easier but not necessarily short, as it will still take time to arrive at decisions. Moreover, given the Philippines’ current diplomatic relations, it would be up to the next president to make up for what Duterte will leave after his term.
Binondo deems it important that the next administration support civil society organizations and cooperate in the ICC investigation by providing data to allow other organizations and institutions to “compare notes from different sources.” This can be a part of the efforts in maintaining the diplomatic relations between the country and the organizations involved.
Such relations, if handled well, will grant supplementary support to the Philippine government.
Also, like what national human rights group Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said in an interview, it is not only accountability that should be sought but also the assurance that one will no longer repeat these crimes. This, and attaining justice for the public, will hopefully be achievable with better international relations.