The Philippines has officially withdrawn from the International Criminal Court (ICC), though the beleaguered tribunal has pledged to pursue its examination of alleged illegal killings in the government’s drug war.
“The secretary-general … informed all concerned states that the withdrawal will take effect for the Philippines on 17 March,” UN spokesperson Eri Kaneko told the AFP news agency on Friday.
Under the treaty, withdrawal is only effective one year after a country gives written notice of its decision to the UN secretary-general.
A signatory country also can “not be discharged” of any cases already pending in the court before the withdrawal.
That means the probe into possible crimes against humanity in the president’s drug war launched by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in February 2018 would continue.
“The suspension of the withdrawal for a period of 12 months … is to prevent situations just like this where a state is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and they withdraw to shield themselves from prosecution,” Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
“The whole point is that you cannot be permitted to do that. So the ICC will continue and will have jurisdiction over prosecuting the president and senior officials who are considered to be responsible.”
The departure of the Philippines follows the court being hit in recent years by high-profile acquittals and moves by several nations to drop out.
Manila moved to quit after the body launched a preliminary examination in 2018 into President Rodrigo Duterte‘s drug crackdown that has killed thousands and drawn international censure.
However, the president’s spokesman said Sunday the nation never legally joined the treaty that underpins the court, a reference to an argument that the Philippines did not complete all the steps to formalise its adoption.
“Our position on the matter remains clear, unequivocal and inflexible: The Philippines never became a state party to the Rome Statute which created the ICC,” spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
“As far as we are concerned, this tribunal is non-existent and its actions a futile exercise,” he added.
Duterte’s drug war is his signature policy initiative and he defends it fiercely, especially from international critics like Western leaders and institutions which he says do not care about his country.
Duterte has made it clear his government will not cooperate with the ICC in any way.
The court “can never acquire jurisdiction over my person, not in a million years,” he said in a speech on Wednesday.
Rights group Amnesty International said on Sunday the withdrawal should prompt the UN Human Rights Council to probe the killings.
“Filipinos bravely challenging the ‘war on drugs’ or seeking justice for their loved ones need international support to help them end this climate of fear, violence and impunity,” said Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin.
The ICC examination, which is one step before a full-blown probe, zeroes in on allegations that the government has been involved in illegal killings as part of the crackdown Duterte launched in mid-2016.
Police say they have killed 5,176 users or pushers who resisted arrest, but rights groups say the actual number of dead is at least triple that.
Critics have alleged the crackdown amounts to a war on the poor that feeds an undercurrent of impunity and lawlessness in the nation of 106 million.
The Philippines’s move to exit follows a string of setbacks for the ICC, including the January acquittal of former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo and the June 2018 not guilty verdict for former DR Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.
In a wave of unprecedented defections, other African nations – Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Gambia – have also made moves to quit or expressed interest in withdrawing as they accused the court of being biased against Africans.
However, the court this month got a boost when Malaysia officially joined, making it one of just a handful of Asian members.