Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a press conference on his drug war at Malacanang palace in Manila, January 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Ezra Acayan

The Philippines has officially notified the International Criminal Court (ICC) of its intention to withdraw as a signatory, potentially becoming only the second nation to ever do so.

In a formal letter addressed to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Philippine Ambassador to the UN Teodoro Locsin Jr stated his country’s “decision to withdraw” was anchored by a “principled stand against those who politicize and weaponize human rights.”

He accused the ICC of taking a biased position against the Philippine government, and challenged the international body’s jurisdiction over allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs.

Based on the principle of complementarily, enshrined in the Rome Statute, the ICC can exercise jurisdiction only when local courts and institutions are deemed unable or unwilling to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable.

According to the Philippine representative, his country has “independent and well-functioning organs and agencies” which “continue to exercise jurisdiction over complaints, issues, problems and concerns arising from its efforts to protect its people [through crackdown on drug dealers].”

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila in 2017. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

Back in 2011, then under the Benigno Aquino III administration, a reformist and staunch supporter of the United States, the Philippines ratified the Rome Statute, placing itself under the jurisdiction of the Hague-based ICC.

Last month, the ICC formally opened a “preliminary examination” as a potential prelude to a full-fledged investigation of accusations of crimes against humanity vis-à-vis senior Filipino officials, including Duterte.

The international court is focused in particular on Duterte’s controversial drug war since his ascent to the presidency in mid-2016, several years after the Philippines placed itself under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

It represents the first time in the ICC’s history that it formally examined charges of mass atrocities against an incumbent Asian leader. Human rights lawyer Jude Sabio and opposition leaders Antonio Trillanes and Gary Alejano pressed separate and independeent charges of crimes against humanity against the Duterte administration.

They allege that Duterte’s drug war represented a systematic, state-sanctioned act of violence against a specific group, namely suspected drug dealers and users, in violation of due process, basic principles of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Senator Antonio Trillanes in a September 15, 2017 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The Duterte administration has dismissed the charges as politically-motivated, while defending its bloody crackdown as a necessary measure to address the menace of drugs in the country.

Over the past year, Duterte has repeatedly lashed out at the ICC and UN bodies, accusing them of interfering in his country’s domestic affairs. The Philippine government has also repeatedly stonewalled its promise to welcome UN investigators to examine facts on the ground beyond media reportage.

The withdrawal from the arbitration body, which will come into effect a year after the member state’s initial submission of notice, will not stop the ICC from examining charges against the Philippine government. If anything, it may embolden the ICC to take a tougher stance and move ahead with prosecution of specific officials.

Article 127 of the Rome Statute states that even if a party withdraws from the treaty, it “shall not be discharged, by reason of its withdrawal, from the obligations arising from this Statute while it was a Party to the Statute, including any financial obligations which may have accrued.”

The Duterte administration, however, had the option of remaining a signatory while challenging the jurisdiction of the ICC, specifically under Article 19, by proving that “it is investigating or prosecuting the case or has investigated or prosecuted.”

Rodrigo Duterte wears a bulletproof vest and a helmet as he gives a pep talk to troops on August 24, 2017. Photo: Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

It also could have forestalled a showdown with the UN body by reassuring the international community of its willingness to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Typically, Duterte has chosen a path of confrontation which will only deepen the country’s international isolation, especially in the West.

The shadow of potential ICC prosecution and the country’s controversial withdrawal from the body will further complicate Manila’s relations with Western partners, including Washington and Canberra, which have sought to maintain stable relations with the Southeast Asian partner. That includes in matters related to counterterrorism.

But it will become increasingly difficult for Western governments and leaders to maintain and develop workable relations with the Duterte administration.

As a result, Manila will likely further rely on Beijing as a strategic patron. China has called on the international community to respect the Philippines’ sovereignty on the issue.

Activists take part in a rally after 91 people were shot dead in a week in an escalation of Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs in Quezon city, Metro Manila, August 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China can veto any resolution aimed against Duterte, likely in quid pro quo exchange for concessions vis-à-vis territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Critics of Duterte’s drug war are also likely to be emboldened to intensify their opposition to the government’s drug war and other abusive policies as international pressure mounts against Duterte.

Since its establishment in 2002, the ICC has received as many as 12,000 complaints, but only nine charges led to indictments against senior officials, including several African leaders from Kenya, Mali, Uganda, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and Sudan.

As one of the original signatories and framers of the United Nations Human Rights Charter, the Philippines has long stood as a bastion of human rights and democracy in Asia.

It’s transformation into a potential rights-abusing pariah worthy of ICC indictment, regardless of eventual rulings or outcomes, will haunt Duterte’s strongman legacy.

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