Possible ICC probe a blow vs impunity in 'drug war' killings — rights groups

Jonathan de Santos - Philstar.com
Possible ICC probe a blow vs impunity in 'drug war' killings â rights groups
File photo shows people lighting candles to protest drug war killings.
The STAR / Miguel de Guzman, File

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2, 11:34 a.m.) — A possible International Criminal Court probe into alleged crimes against humanity related to the government's "war on drugs" is a blow against impunity over killings during the Duterte administration, rights groups said Tuesday.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose term ends on Tuesday, announced Monday night that she has asked the court for permission to proceed with an investigation into alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

She said her office has ended its preliminary examination into the Philippines and found "there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed... in the context of the Government of the Philippines' 'war on drugs' campaign."

The Philippine government has repeatedly said the ICC has no jurisdiction over the allegations because the country has a functioning criminal justice system. It has withdrawn from the ICC and said, incorrectly, that the Philippines' ratification of the Rome Statute in 2011 was invalid because the treaty was not published in newspapers.

"Until now, President Rodrigo Duterte has callously worn his support for the government's deadly 'war on drugs' like a badge of honor," Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to media.

"His presumption of impunity for these crimes was dealt a blow today after a request by International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity. If approved, it could bring victims and survivors closer to seeing those responsible for their suffering finally brought to justice," she also said.

Rights group Amnesty International called the development a "landmark step" towards justice for thousands killed in the "war on drugs," where a Department of Justice-led review found breaches in protocol and procedure.

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"The ICC's intervention must end this cycle of impunity in the country and send a signal to the police and those with links to the police who continue to carry out or sanction these killings that they cannot escape being held accountable for the crimes they commit," Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International secretary general, said. 

Callamard,a former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said that "state-sanctioned killing and incitement to violence by government officials has become the norm under the Duterte administration." Government officials have repeatedly said that killing is not state policy but that authorities can defend themselves when "drug personalities" resist arrest with violence.

Rights group Karapatan, meanwhile, called the development a long-awaited step towards justice and accounatbility as well as "another damning indictment of the Duterte government’s murderous policies that have killed — and continue to kill — thousands of Filipinos with impunity."

The group, which has been documenting cases of abuse — mostly against activists and rights defenders — urged the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to grant Bensouda's request and said it hopes that her replacement, UK lawyer Karim Khan, "pursue the investigation into the human rights crisis in the Philippines and to hold President Duterte and all officials involved in the drug war accountable for their crimes against the Filipino people." 

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CHR advises cooperation

In a separate statement on Tuesday, the Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional body, said it takes note of the development and said that despite the Philippines' withdrawal, the ICC has jurisdiction over alleged crimes against humanity in the Philippines from November 2011 to March 2019.

"In this regard, CHR, as the country’s independent national human rights institution, 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," the commission, which has been kept out of investigations and reviews of 'drug war' cases, said.

"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, including that of the UN system, in improving the human rights situation in the country," it also said.

It noted that the Philippine National Police has given the DOJ access to some cases handled by the police Internal Affairs Service, a development that the CHR said is a step in the right direction.

"At the same time, CHR remains to look forward to more meaningful engagements in demonstrating the rule of law in the country, including being able to have access to cases of said killings in the country for our own independent probe," it said.

The government has been hostile to the CHR, which Duterte and other officials often label as always siding with criminals and rebels. In 2017, the House of Representatives proposed a budget of P1 for the entire commission.

UN rights council urged to investigate as well

Callamard said any ICC investigation "must be reinforced by greater efforts from the international community, starting with the UN Human Rights Council" as she called on the body to also investigate the rights situation in the Philippines.

Human Rights Watch's Singh said rights groups, including HRW, have documented abuses in the Philippines in relation to the 'war on drugs' but that "the UN Human Rights Council has opted instead to provide technical cooperation and capacity-building to the same government that denies the true scale and severity of the human rights violations, has publicly endorsed the policy of killings, avoids independent investigations, and continues to crack down on civil society."

She said that killings have continued since the Philippines' withdrawal from the ICC in 2019 — Bensouda's examination covered the period between ratification and withdrawal — and that "the UN Human Rights Council should course-correct and stand up for the Philippine’s victims instead of giving support to the government that kills them."

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