The international criminal court has authorized a full investigation into the Philippine president’s “war on drugs,” saying it resembled an illegitimate and systematic attack on civilians.
The judges said there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that the crime against humanity of murder had been committed in the crackdown, which has killed tens of thousands of people.
Rodrigo Duterte removed Manila from the Hague-based court in 2019 after it launched a preliminary investigation, but the ICC said it had jurisdiction over crimes committed while the Philippines was still a member.
ICC judges said that the “so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings are neither legitimate nor mere excesses in an operation that otherwise it would be legitimate ”.
The evidence suggested that a “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population was carried out in accordance with or to promote a state policy,” they said in a statement.
Former ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had asked judges in June to authorize a full investigation into allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were illegally killed by the police.
The case will be taken up by his successor, Karim Khan, who took office shortly after.
The crackdown on drugs is Duterte’s signature political initiative and he fiercely defends it, especially from critics such as Western leaders and institutions who, according to him, do not care about their country.
The campaign leader was chosen in 2016 on a campaign promise to get rid of the Philippine drug problem, openly ordering the police to kill drug suspects if their lives were in danger.
At least 6,181 people have died in more than 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, according to the latest official data released by the Philippines in July this year. ICC prosecutors in court documents estimate the number of people killed to be between 12,000 and 30,000.
Prosecutors said Manila had not denied that people were killed during police operations, but rather “consistently argued that these deaths were the result of officers acting in self-defense.”
Duterte sparked international censorship when he removed the Philippines from court. The judges said that even though the Philippines had withdrawn as a state party from the court, the alleged crimes took place while Manila was still under the Rome statute, so it could still investigate them.
Established in 2002, the ICC is a so-called court of last resort and only engages in the world’s worst crimes if its member states are unable or unwilling to do so. The investigation will also cover alleged murders in the southern Davao region between 2011 and 2016, when Duterte was mayor. They were allegedly committed by police officers and vigilantes, including a group calling itself the “Davao death squad”.
“The people involved in these murders in some cases seem [be] the same people who were later involved in the ‘war on drugs’ campaign, “said ICC prosecutors.
Most of the victims were young men suspected of small-scale drug trafficking or petty crimes such as robbery and drug use “while gang members and street children were also killed,” prosecutors said.
Duterte, who speaks harshly, has repeatedly claimed that the ICC has no jurisdiction over him and that he will not cooperate with what he has called an “illegal” investigation, even threatening to arrest Bensouda at one point.
Human rights groups welcomed the move, saying the ICC decision “offers much-needed control” of Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs.”
“The families of victims and survivors have reason to hope that those responsible for crimes against humanity will finally be able to face justice,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Conde.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism