The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor said on Monday that there is “reasonable basis to believe” the Philippines has committed crimes against humanity in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs operation.
Fatou Bensouda’s office, in its annual report, said those crimes included murder, torture, infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm. They took place between July 1, 2016 and March 16, 2019.
The ICC prosecutor’s office has been examining the Philippines’ case since 2018, focusing in particular on allegations that Duterte and other government officials have actively promoted and encouraged the killing of suspected drug users and dealers, as well as claims that law enforcement officials and unidentified assailants have carried out thousands of unlawful killings in the Philippines.
A final decision on a formal ICC investigation could come in the first half of 2021, the report said, attributing the delays to the coronavirus pandemic.
Duterte, who assumed office in 2016, has promised a relentless war against drugs – an issue he campaigned on during the presidential election of that same year. On several occasions, the Philippine president had told police officers to “shoot and kill” drug suspects, saying in 2017 that “I will kill more if only to get rid of drugs”.
The ICC report noted that law enforcement officials were involved in the deaths of more than 5,300 people during their anti-drug crackdown.
It also said there were thousands of more killings by unidentified assailants, noting there were allegations these murders “were planned, directed, and or/coordinated”, if not actually committed by law enforcement officers themselves.
According to the Philippine police, at least 5,552 people were killed during police operations between December 2019 and June 30, 2016, the day Duterte was sworn in as president. An earlier report published in June 2019, however, showed a death toll of 6,600. The police did not explain why the number was revised down.
Meanwhile, rights advocates say as many as 27,000 people were killed as of mid-2019 – including the victims killed by “unknown gunmen”, some of whom later turned out to be police officers.
Among those who were killed were more than a dozen town mayors and other local officials as well as lawyers and judges.
Also killed were several minors, who were not linked to any drug activity, but whom the government thought of as “collateral damage”.
The ICC’s preliminary investigation into the deadly war on drugs in the Philippines had enraged Duterte, prompting Manila to officially withdraw from the international body on March 17, 2019.
In his feud with the ICC, Duterte had also threatened Bensouda with arrest if she visited the Philippines to conduct an investigation.
He has also referred to Bensouda as “that Black woman”, and called Agnes Callamard, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Philippine extrajudicial killings, “skinny” and “malnourished”. Both public tirades were denounced as “racist and sexist”.
Despite the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC, Bensouda’s office noted that it still has jurisdiction to investigate allegations of crimes committed by the state between the time the Philippines signed the Rome Statute in 2011 until its decision to leave on March 16, 2019. It also said the the “exercise of the Court’s jurisdiction is not subject to any time limit”.
The Rome Statute is an international treaty that establishes the ICC, which tries genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. It came into force in 2002.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, insisted the ICC no longer has jurisdiction over matters in the country.
“We do no recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC, so we are not worried,” he said.
Although a formal ICC investigation has yet to be decided on, the Philippines-based National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), a critic of the war on drugs, called the latest ICC report as a “very considerable development that has far-reaching repercussions”.
“Our government and law enforcers must take this seriously and get the message loud and clear,” Edra Olalia, president of NUPL, said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
“While we are still not out of the woods, finally rays of hope have peeked out of the pitch-dark clouds of impunity.”
The rights group, Karapatan, also welcomed the ICC’s report saying, “the day of reckoning is coming nearer for Duterte’s reign of terror.”
Since the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC, its authorities have allegedly continued to carry out human rights abuses.
The health emergency and national lockdown due to COVID-19 has not stopped Duterte’s “war on drugs”, with dozens of people reported killed by unknown assailants.
Since the last police report in December 2019, police said that more than 300 drug suspects were also killed during police operations as of August 31, 2020.
Police said the suspects were killed after they resisted arrest.
The Philippine government has only initiated “a limited number of investigations and prosecution” despite the ICC prosecutor highlighting allegations of rights abuses.