Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes police in Metro Manila on February 6, 2018. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes police in Metro Manila on February 6, 2018. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Could Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte soon face crimes against humanity charges in an international court over his controversial ‘war on drugs’ campaign?

The International Criminal Court said on February 8 that it would undertake a “preliminary investigation” into the circumstances surrounding his anti-drug campaign’s killings, a death toll human rights groups estimate could be as high as 12,000 deaths.

The investigation and potential court case represent the strongest foreign threat yet to Duterte, who has consistently shot back at all foreign criticism of his crackdown, including strong statements of concern from the United Nations, European Union and United States.

The international tribunal, which is tasked with investigating mass atrocities committed by world leaders and state institutions, will evaluate whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with prosecution of those involved in carrying out the bloody drug war.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced that her office will “analyze crimes allegedly committed … since at least 1 July 2016 in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ campaign.” It’s the first ICC investigation of its kind against an incumbent Southeast Asian leader.

The complaint was filed by Filipino human rights lawyer Jude Sabio and opposition legislators, including Congressman Gary Alejano and Senator Antonio Trillanes, both of whom have accused the president of being directly involved in the ordering extrajudicial killings against suspected drug users and dealers.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

They maintain that the ICC should step in because local institutions are either unwilling or incapable of ensuring accountability for officials involved in the bloody campaign. On the ICC’s announcement, Duterte suggested if the court found him guilty it should killed him by firing squad rather than jail him.

Duterte, a trained lawyer, denied that he gave police orders to kill drug suspects and questioned whether the ICC has jurisdiction to indict him.

“I would ask for the rare privilege of talking to you. Just the two of us in the room,” Duterte said during a news conference, referring to Bensouda. “I welcome you. If you want to find me guilty, go ahead. So be it. Find a country where they kill people with a firing squad and I’m ready.”

The ICC, under the principle of complementarity, is allowed to step in as a ‘last resort’, namely when there is sufficient evidence to suggest that domestic courts and bodies are unable to dispense with their functions of upholding justice and human rights.

That’s because the Philippine legislature is heavily stacked with diehard Duterte supporters and has emerged as a rubber stamp for the president’s legal whims and wishes. A similar trend is emerging in the Supreme Court and other judicial institutions where the president’s appointees reign supreme, critics say.

The few remaining strongholds of government independence have come under assault, with top level officials who have dared to confront or challenge the president removed or sidelined. The Ombudsman Office, which was investigating Duterte’s and his family members’ alleged off-shore back accounts, has come under especially heavy fire.

Duterte is being specifically accused of committing crimes against humanity by orchestrating and overseeing a systematic campaign of extermination against specific groups, namely drugs users and dealers.

Philippine Senator Leila De Lima inside a police van in Metro Manila on February 24, 2017. Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

Senator Leila De Lima, a former Justice Secretary and outspoken opposition leader who is currently detained on what many believe are politically-motivated drug charges, urged the ICC from prison to “act with urgency” since “killings are still happening” across the country.

The shadow of possible ICC prosecution will necessarily put more pressure on Western nations to adopt a more cautious approach in their relations with Duterte’s administration.

Canada, for one, is reviewing its planned sales of military equipment to the Philippines due to concerns over the country’s human rights record. The deal, which involved 16 choppers worth US$233.4 million, was brokered by Canadian Commercial Corp and built by Bell Helicopter in Mirabel, Quebec.

“The [Canadian] Prime Minister and I have been very clear about the Duterte regime’s human rights violations and extrajudicial killings including while [we visited] the Philippines,” said Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “I will conduct an extremely rigorous human rights analysis of any potential export permit application related to this contract,” she continued.

The ICC investigation will also put pressure on the US, which has warmed to Duterte under the Donald Trump administration. Duterte and previous US president Barack Obama famously jousted over the drug war, with Duterte once referring to Obama as the “son of a whore.”

Former US President Barack Obama and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a combination photo: Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb and Manman Dejeto

The United States Congress, meanwhile, has recently opposed transfer of military equipment and allocation of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to the Duterte administration over his government’s rights record.

The US provided crucial intelligence and logistical assistance to Philippine armed forces during their fight last year against Islamic State-linked militants. The cooperation helped to restore ties after a downturn driven by US criticism of Duterte’s drug war.

Human rights groups have welcomed the ICC’s and Western governments’ mounting pressure on the Filipino leader.

Human Rights Watch, a US rights lobby, has claimed it “invariably found unlawful executions by police or agents of the police typically acting as death squads” under the Duterte administration.

The group recently claimed in a report that 12,000 people have been killed in extrajudicial fashion in the campaign, a claim the government has strongly refuted. It has acknowledged 4,000 people have been killed in instances where suspects violently resisted arrest.

A Filipino man stands outside a shanty area in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 8, 2017. Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Duterte’s government has remained defiant of all criticism of the campaign. After suspending lethal aspects of the campaign amid a public backlash late last year, Duterte restarted “Tokhang” (door-to-door knocking) operations in December. Since then, up to 53 suspected drug dealers have been killed by the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“The President and I met about this extensively for two hours last night,” said presidential spokesman Harry Roque at a media briefing after the ICC’s announcement. “The President welcomes the preliminary examination because he is sick and tired of being accused of the commission of crimes against humanity.”

Roque also said that if the ICC were to pursue a full-blown investigation against Duterte, the Filipino leader was more than willing to face the international court to defend himself and stop what he sees as “harassment” by “biased” international institutions.

“If need be, [Duterte] will argue his case personally and face the ICC,” Roque said.

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