The government on Saturday welcomed the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s decision to temporarily halt its investigation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, although Malacañang insisted that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over the Philippines.
ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan wrote in a document dated 18 November that the prosecution suspended its probe activities on the state’s anti-narcotics drive pending its assessment on the “scope and effect” of the Philippine government’s deferral request.
Reacting to Khan’s announcement, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the administration “welcomes the judiciousness of the new ICC prosecutor, who has deemed it fit to give the matter a fresh look.”
“We trust that the matter will be resolved in favor of the exoneration of our government and the recognition of the vibrancy of our justice system,” said Nograles, who is also Duterte’s acting spokesperson.
The Palace official maintained that the Philippine government does not acknowledge the ICC’s jurisdiction over Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
“This, however, does not preclude the government from communicating with the ICC, and it should be stressed that the government’s communication to the ICC was conditioned on the fact that in making that communication, the Philippine government was not waiving its position regarding the ICC’s lack of jurisdiction,” Nograles said.
Request for suspension
The government’s deferral request on the ICC investigation was articulated by Philippine Ambassador to the Netherlands Eduardo Malaya through a letter dated 10 November, which was submitted to Khan’s office.
In the letter, Malaya noted that local authorities have “undertaken, and continue to undertake, thorough investigations of all reported deaths during anti-narcotic operations in the country in accordance with the relevant procedures,” thus the government finds the ICC intervention unnecessary.
He also pointed out that the Philippines justice department has already referred to the National Bureau of Investigation its review of 52 cases, where administrative liability was found on the part of law enforcers.
The agency, Malaya added, is also looking into 300 other cases from the last decade to review other areas of concern that possibly involve human rights violations.
His letter did not mention any domestic investigation into Davao killings, which is covered by the investigation authorized by the ICC pre-trial chamber. Malaya cited, however, a general human rights program with the United Nations.
“Needless to state, the judicial system of the Philippines is alive and functioning,” said the Philippine ambassador.
Khan, in response to the country’s request, notified the Philippines that his office would suspend its investigative activities, but would continue “analysis of information already in its possession, as well as of any new information it may receive from third parties.”
The prosecution would also actively assess the need for applications to the pre-trial chamber for authority to conduct necessary investigative steps for the preservation of evidence related to Duterte’s drug war, he added.
ICC urged to continue
While the Palace was elated over the temporary halt on ICC’s investigative activities, human rights groups urged the tribunal to reject the government’s deferment request.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), counsel to some of the drug war victims who filed communications and representations, called on the Khan’s office to continue with the conduct of a full-blown investigation into the alleged abuses committed in Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs.
“We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration. These are so contrary to what is happening on the ground and should never be taken at face value,” the group said through a statement.
The NUPL said the domestic “remedies” described by the Philippine ambassador in his letter have proven “utterly ineffective in stopping wave after wave of drug-related killings, the imprisonment of thousands of poor Filipinos on questionable charges, and the commission of countless human rights violations during the anti-drug campaign.”
It added that the ICC pre-trial chamber’s move to open an investigation on the Philippine drug war gave a “faint glimmer of hope” to the families of those killed by law enforcers, and that “we cannot take that away from them now.”
The ICC has named the Chief Executive among the accused in its drug war investigation, which particularly involves drug-related killings logged from July 2016 to March 2019 — at a time when Duterte was president — as well as drug cases in November 2011 to June 2016, when Duterte was still Davao City mayor.
For his part, Duterte repeatedly said that he won’t participate in the investigation even if “hell freezes over,” adding that he would rather face a complaint before a local court than the ICC.
His spokesmen have long insisted that the Philippines does not need foreign entities to probe the alleged human rights violations committed during the anti-narcotics drive, noting that judicial processes and the government’s own investigations on drug-related deaths are ongoing.
They also argued that The Hague-based court has no jurisdiction over alleged drug war crimes since the Philippines pulled out of the ICC in 2019 after it launched a preliminary probe.
Security forces said they have killed 7,000 drug dealers in sting operations since Duterte took office in 2016, but human rights groups peg the fatalities at 20,000.