DOJ chief slams move as ‘not welcome, irritant’; gov’t plans to appeal
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has authorized the resumption of its investigation into the bloody anti-drug war and the alleged “Davao Death Squad” killings under the Duterte administration in the Philippines.
In a statement dated Jan. 26, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) said it has approved ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s request to continue its probe into “the situation of the Republic of the Philippines.”
According to the ICC, Manila’s efforts to investigate and prosecute the alleged crimes against humanity in the Philippines were not satisfactory.
“After having examined the submissions and materials of the Philippines government, and of the ICC prosecutor, as well as the victims’ observations, the chamber concluded that the various domestic initiatives and proceedings, assessed collectively, do not amount to tangible, concrete and progressive investigative steps in a way that would sufficiently mirror the court’s investigation,” the Hague-based international tribunal said.
“This conclusion does not preclude the Philippines from providing material in the future in order for the prosecution, or the chamber, to determine inadmissibility of the investigation or of any actual case, if and when needed,” it added.
The government on Friday said it would oppose the move to resume its inquiry into former President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs and may take its case to the tribunal’s appeals chamber.
“It is our intention to exhaust our legal remedies,” Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said after the ICC authorized the reopening of the inquiry because it was not satisfied that the Philippines was “undertaking relevant investigations that would warrant a deferral of the court’s investigations.”
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, on the other hand, said he will snub the delegation of the ICC to the Philippines to probe the killings during the drug war.
“Definitely I do not welcome this move of theirs and I will not welcome them to the Philippines unless they make clear that they will respect us in this regard,” Remulla said.
“I think the world knows that we are a functioning country with a functioning judicial system. This is an irritant that just came in,” he stressed.
“I will not stand for any of these antics that will tend to question our sovereignty or our status as a sovereign country. We will not accept that,” he added.
In September 2021, the ICC’s pre-trial chamber approved the investigation into Duterte’s war on drugs and killings in Davao City between 2011 and 2016.
In the decision, ICC judges concluded that “the crime against humanity of murder appears to have been committed.”
The chamber said that “it is also apparent” that killings took place “pursuant or in furtherance of a state policy.”
In November 2021, however, the investigation was suspended, after the Philippine government asked that it be deferred in view of its own review of drug-related killings.
But in June 2022, the ICC’s Kahn asked the pre-trial chamber to resume the investigation, saying the Philippines’ inter-agency drug war review panel did not conduct an investigation in earnest.
The government says at least 6,200 drug suspects have been killed in police operations from June 2016 until November 2021.
Several human rights groups, however, refuted the data, saying the actual death toll is from 12,000 to 30,000.
Under orders of Duterte, who lambasted what he called meddling in domestic affairs, the Philippines withdrew from the Rome Statute that established the ICC in March 2019.
His successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., said the country has no intention of rejoining the ICC.
In September, the government argued in a 62-page filing that the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate it, and that the alleged crimes were not grave enough to warrant further action by the tribunal.
The submission, signed by Guevarra — who was Justice Secretary under the Duterte administration — also said the Philippine government has investigated and prosecuted the alleged crimes or is doing so.
But Khan rejected Manila’s arguments a few days later, saying that the government has failed to substantiate its claim that the Philippines justice system “generally functions well” and administrative proceedings “may or can” result in criminal proceedings.
The DOJ-led inter-agency review panel, he added, did not take “investigative steps” such as interviewing witnesses or suspects, and collecting documentary evidence.
President Marcos, elected last year, has vowed to continue the drug war but with a focus on prevention and rehabilitation.
“We wish to emphasize that our own domestic investigative and judicial processes should take precedence” over the ICC, Guevarra said.
Rights groups, however, welcomed the ICC announcement, and allege the killings are continuing under Marcos.
“This is indeed very welcome news coming as it does in the midst of continuing impunity, selective memory and orchestrated denial by the past and present governments,” said National Union of People’s Lawyers chairman Edre Olalia.
The group represents some of the dead suspects’ families in a handful of cases being tried in court against police officers.
Olalia said the ICC announcement “validates” the assertions of the slain suspects’ kin that “there are no adequate and effective measures to achieve concrete justice for them on the ground… despite official claims to the contrary”.
Only three police officers have been convicted of unlawful drug war killings, while another police officer was jailed in November last year for planting evidence and torturing two teenagers killed at the height of the crackdown.
Human Rights Watch praised the ICC’s decision, saying the ICC investigation “is the only credible avenue for justice for the victims and their families of Duterte’s murderous ‘war on drugs.'”
“As the court’s judges agreed, Philippine authorities are not ‘undertaking relevant investigations’ into these crimes or ‘making a real or genuine effort’ to carry these investigations out. The ICC offers a path forward to fill the accountability vacuum,” it said.
Renato Reyes, a senior leader of the left-wing group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, urged Mr. Marcos in a statement to cooperate with the ICC probe “so that justice can be rendered to the thousands of victims of Duterte’s failed drug war.”
Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who led the bloody war on drugs as Duterte’s national police chief, said he would cooperate with the ICC if the government allows it to conduct its investigation.
“If the Philippine government will allow them, I would have to cooperate. It’s the government that is cooperating, I am part of the government, so why not,” said Dela Rosa in a Zoom interview.
But Dela Rosa said the government maintains that the ICC has no jurisdiction over the country.
Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III urged the government to cooperate with the ICC as “a responsible member of the world community of nations.”
Senator Risa Hontiveros said she welcomed the ICC decision to resume its investigation.
“I hope the President adheres to international law and the Rome Statute as part of our commitment to the community of nations against state sponsored impunity,” she said.
The opposition lawmaker said the ICC is filling a long-standing vacuum in the investigation of the state-sponsored killings.
The government itself cannot credibly investigate murders allegedly committed by government agents as part of government policy, she said.
“Justice requires that an impartial body investigate killings connected to the so-called war on drugs. Justice is not fully served when only the foot soldiers are behind bars,” Hontiveros said.
Unlike the Duterte government, the Marcos administration is actively engaged with the wider international community, she said.
“This increased international participation also makes it only appropriate for the Philippine government to rejoin as a state party to the Rome Statute as soon as possible,” she said.
Hontiveros said there is overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs carried out widespread and systematic violations of human rights.
House Deputy Minority leader France Castro said the ICC decision was “good news.”
“The Philippines should not have withdrawn from the ICC in the first place, as it is a crucial institution for seeking justice for victims of human rights abuses. We must ensure that the rule of law prevails, and that justice is served for all,” said Castro of the ACT Teachers party-list group.
Former congressman and Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares echoed Castro’s view.
“This is a positive development as victims of the fake drug war of the Duterte administration can still get justice even outside Philippine courts. This is good news because I am dismayed and deeply troubled by the lack of justice for the families of victims of extrajudicial killings… here in our country,” he said.
“We filed the case of Crimes Against Humanity against President Duterte in 2018 and it is only now that the investigation will be undertaken. However, we still welcome the ICC decision. At least Duterte and his subordinates cannot claim that they were not accorded due process,” Colmenares said.