Duterte, Aquino, and the ICC

“Contrary to official claims, many of the killings by law enforcement were not justified.”

One of the best foreign policy decisions that former President Benigno S. Aquino III did was to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) ten years ago, in 2011. The Senate subsequently concurred with that ratification, thus putting the Philippines under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Former Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa explained the significance of this visionary act of Aquino: “Ratification of the Rome Statute enhances Philippine commitment to human rights and is our contribution to an effective international criminal justice system. It complements Republic Act No. 9851, which enables our country on its own to prosecute international crimes and strengthens human rights’ enforcement in our country.” Republic Act No. 9851, or the Philippine Act on Crimes against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity, was signed into law in December 2009.

It took more than a decade of lobbying by human rights groups for this momentous decision to happen. One of the leaders in that effort was Attorney Harry Roque, currently President Duterte’s spokesperson. Rappler reported in 2018 that Secretary Roque, after we joined the ICC, wrote in his blog: “To be candid, I never thought that membership in the ICC was possible, at least before I become geriatric. This is because of the many atrocities under both the Marcos and Arroyo regimes that remain unpunished. Well, it’s always a pleasure to be proven wrong. Here, credit should go to both the Senate and to President Benigno Aquino III. It was the latter who reversed the Arroyo policy of rejecting the ICC as a means of ending impunity.”

He also said: “As I ponder on the future of the Philippines as the latest member of the ICC, I look back to the 11 long years that took the Philippine Coalition for the ICC to finally convince the Philippines to be a member of the Court with melancholy and pride. Surely, though, we cannot afford to sit long on our laurels as the path ahead remains long and winding. Be as it may, the message has been sent: no more impunity!”

On June 14, 2021, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the preliminary investigation which started since 8 February 2018, on the situation in the Philippines in the context of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs has been concluded. As such, the prosecutor is now requesting the International Criminal Court to authorise the commencement of an investigation into the situation in the Philippines in relation to War on Drugs campaign by the Philippine government She determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed on the territory between 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the Government of the said campaign.

As reported by Prosecutor Bensouda, extrajudicial killings, perpetrated across the Philippines, appear to have been committed pursuant to an official State policy of the Philippine government. Police and other government officials planned, ordered, and sometimes directly perpetrated extrajudicial killings. They paid police officers and vigilantes bounties for extrajudicial killings. State officials at the highest levels of government also spoke publicly and repeatedly in support of extrajudicial killings and created a culture of impunity for those who committed them.

The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over these crimes. While the Philippines’ withdrawal from the Statute took effect on 17 March 2019, the Court retains jurisdiction with respect to alleged crimes that occurred on the territory of the Philippines while it was a State Party, from 1 November 2011 up to and including 16 March 2019.

The information reviewed provides a reasonable basis to believe that between at least 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019, members of Philippine security forces and other, often associated, perpetrators deliberately killed thousands of civilians suspected to be involved in drug activities. Although the precise number is difficult to ascertain, estimates of the total number of persons killed in connection with the war on illegal drugs during this period range from 12,000 to 30,000. Using the Philippine government’s own numbers, members of the PNP and other security forces killed at least 5,281 civilians during police anti-drug operations.

Contrary to official claims, many of the killings by law enforcement were not justified. The use of force employed appears to have been unnecessary and disproportionate under the circumstances, and the killings therefore arbitrary and unlawful.

The Request lays down the premise that killings were also committed outside of official law enforcement operations. These were directly connected to the illegal drugs campaign, despite being attributed by the police to “unidentified” perpetrators. Indeed, some of these perpetrators have come forward to say they were hired by police to carry out the killings.

While we have withdrawn from the Rome Statute, the wise decision of President Aquino continues to have an impact. For sure, future Presidents will return us to the ICC. After our horrible experience of the Duterte years, there is even more reason why we need to be part of this international effort to hold the worst human rights offenders responsible.

Harry Roque’s words are correct now, and they are even more urgent and compelling: “No impunity!

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