President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines
President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

MANILA – The wanton murder of a Filipino mother and son has reignited a national debate on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal anti-crime campaign, including new calls for the leader and his top officials to face international prosecution for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The shooting incident, captured on video by multiple eyewitnesses including relatives and neighbors of the victims and viewed virally on social media, involved a former Manila-based police official with a long history of infractions and abuses, according to reports.  

The precise circumstances around the altercation, standoff and killings in the northern province of Tarlac are yet to be fully investigated. But the viral and visceral response to the killings, punctuated by commentary on the systematic abuse by law enforcers under Duterte, caused the president to wade into the controversy.

“I don’t think that you can escape the rigors of justice because [this was captured on] TV. [Even I was shocked]…That’s unfair and [too] brutal,” Duterte said in a mixture of Filipino and English in response to the incident. He dismissed the brutal murder, as with other police-related killings, as an isolated case involving a “mad” cop.

The Filipino president has actively encouraged violence among law enforcers while offering unconditional protection. “I will protect you. I will not allow one policeman or one military to go to jail,” Duterte said in one of his countless speeches before the Philippine military in late-2016.

More recently, Duterte has ordered law enforcers to adopt tough measures against anyone who defies Covid-19 lockdowns, including a carte blanche order to “shoot them dead.” “My orders are for the police, the military and the villages, in case there’s trouble and there’s an occasion where they fight and your life is threatened, shoot them dead,” he said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the campaign trail in 2016. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“Now, I’m telling the law enforcement, the uniformed personnel: Do your duty. Do it in accordance with law (but) be alert and be wise. Shoot at the slightest mistake. Because if you do not, they will take you down first and you will be in danger,” declared Duterte in a speech before the Philippine National Police as he vowed to continue his controversial war on the “evils of drugs.” 

Duterte’s long pattern of incitement to violence and his constant efforts to shield abusive police officers has reinforced the near-term prospect of The Hague-based ICC issuing arrest warrants against top Filipino officials, including Duterte. The ICC is allowed to exercise its jurisdiction when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute criminals.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s office last week released an annual report which found “reasonable basis to believe” that Duterte’s scorched-earth drug war has led to mass atrocities which could constitute “crimes against humanity.”

Since 2018, the ICC has received multiple complaints by Philippine-based human rights activists and legislators about the Filipino president’s human rights record, including tens of thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users, dealers and criminals in the past four years.

Foreign-based church groups, lawyers and political leaders recently formed a new human rights coalition known as “Investigate PH” to gather evidence on suspected crimes against humanity related to Duterte’s “war on drugs” and to lobby the United Nations and other international bodies to hold him accountable.

The new group has said it intends to submit its findings to the ICC so Duterte and other Philippine officials involved in alleged extrajudicial killings can be prosecuted.

In March last year, the government announced it would block ICC investigators from entering the country, with presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo claiming any ICC investigation would be a violation of Philippine sovereignty.

At the same time, officials tout the lethal campaign as a popular success. According to Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) data, there have been as many as 5,810 persons killed under Duterte’s drug war between June 2016 and July 2020.

A December 2019 to February 2020 survey conducted by the state’s Dangerous Drugs Board reputedly found that the number of illegal drug users had fallen to 1.67 million from an initial estimate of between 4 to 8 million at the start of Duterte’s term in mid-2016.

The survey also showed that around half of Filipinos “strongly agree” with the government’s anti-drug campaign, according to the boards’ chairman Catalino Cuy. But separate opinion surveys also show that as many as 9 out of ten Filipinos oppose extrajudicial killings and want drug suspects kept alive.

A man wears a mask with the name of President Duterte and his election campaign slogan on April 5, 2020, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP/Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Human rights groups and civil society organizations suspect the true number of Filipinos killed in the anti-drug campaign is as high as 30,000, with the vast majority of extrajudicial killings involving state-sponsored vigilante groups some refer to as “death squads.”

Last year, Duterte’s government rescinded the Philippines’ membership to the ICC under the Rome Statute, but the court has insisted that it retains jurisdiction on systematic crimes committed prior to the finalization of the country’s formal withdrawal.

The Netherlands-based court has thus examined all allegations of crimes committed by Philippine authorities in the first three years of Duterte’s term in office.

In the past decade, the ICC has investigated other prominent rogue leaders including former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Liberia’s President Charles Taylor and Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, for their active participation in violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

If convicted, Duterte will become the first Asian leader to face punishment for committing mass atrocities. The Filipino president has repeatedly defied the ICC and other international human rights groups, daring them to arrest him for his alleged crimes.

Neri Colmenares, a leading opposition legislator and human rights lawyer, has claimed that Duterte “may face arrest” in the near future for his reputed role in extrajudicial killings and abetting a culture of impunity among law enforcers.

Duterte’s chief legal counsel and former spokesman Salvador Panelo quickly dismissed the statement as a “fervent wish” while questioning the jurisdiction and capability of the ICC to arrest the Filipino president.

“It will not happen… ICC does not have jurisdiction so it will be ineffective if they will issue a warrant. How will they enforce it?,” claimed Duterte’s chief lawyer in a mixture of Filipino and English during a recent radio interview. 

Police officers investigating a killed alleged drug dealer his face covered with packing tape in Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Former Senator Antonio Trillanes, another leading opposition figure who is among those who have filed complaints at the ICC, is adamant that Duterte will not escape justice.

“Duterte may try to ignore the jurisdiction of ICC over him but deep inside he knows that he cannot get away from this one,” Trillanes wrote in a Twitter post in a mixture of Filipino and English. “Having profiled Duterte, I’m sure he is already shaking out of fear.”

Duterte, for his part, has played down and mocked recent warnings of his imminent arrest. “I’m not afraid…I will die for my principles,” said Duterte, signaling his defiance to stand by his controversial policies despite the threat of ICC prosecution until the end of his term in mid-2022.