President Rodrigo Duterte will never cooperate with an International Criminal Court (ICC) probe into the country's deadly drug war, his spokesman said Tuesday, branding the process "legally erroneous."
Outgoing ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Monday asked judges at the world's only permanent war crimes court to authorize an investigation into allegations that Philippine police unlawfully killed as many as tens of thousands of civilians between 2016 and 2019.
Duterte was elected in 2016 on a campaign promise to get rid of the country's drug problem, and he openly ordered police to kill drug suspects if their lives were in danger.
"The President will never cooperate until the end of his term on June 30, 2022," Harry Roque told reporters, repeating a previous assertion that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the Philippines because it pulled out of the tribunal.
The Philippines left the ICC in 2019 after the court launched a preliminary examination into the war on drugs. Bensouda said it could still investigate crimes committed while the country was a member.
"The available information indicates that members of the Philippine National Police, and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians" during the period under investigation, said Bensouda, in one of her last acts before stepping down this week.
But Roque rejected her findings and said it was "an insult to all Filipinos" to suggest the country's justice system was not working.
"We will be compared to countries like Darfur, areas where there is no functioning government. It's not right," he said.
"If killings occurred, appropriate force and violence were observed."
The crackdown is Duterte's signature policy initiative, and he defends it fiercely, especially from critics such as Western leaders and institutions which he says do not care about the Philippines.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in over 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since July 2016, according to official data.
Human rights groups estimate the number of dead could be several times higher.
Many suspects have been put on "drug watch lists" by local officials and then visited by police at their homes -- a situation which often ends in a deadly shooting that officers claim was self-defense.
Rights groups welcomed Bensouda's request, with Amnesty International describing the ICC investigation as a "landmark step.”
The president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Domingo Cayosa, said the ICC can probe alleged crimes against humanity as the probe covers a period before the Philippines exited the Rome Statute.
In a television interview on GMA-7, Cayosa also said certain individuals can be convicted of crimes against humanity committed in the drug war, depending on the results of the ICC probe.
Cayosa said the drug war probe can still cover crimes against humanity incidents until 2019 because the country formally withdrew in March 2019.
The Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday questioned the propriety of Bensouda’s request on the eve of her end of term.”
“The Philippine government finds deeply regrettable the announcement of the outgoing prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to seek judicial authorization to proceed with an investigation of the situation in the Philippines,” the statement said.
The DFA pointed out that state parties to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, envisioned the court to have “complementary, not primary, jurisdiction of prosecution of the persons most responsible for the most serious crimes of international concern.”
“The precipitate move of the prosecutor is a blatant violation of the principle of complementary, which is a bedrock principle of the Rome Statute,” the DFA said.
“By her act, the outgoing prosecutor likewise undercuts the attractiveness of the Rome Statute to states that may be considering accession,” it added.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Tuesday downplayed the effect that the ICC probe would have on his department’s own investigation into deaths arising from anti-drug operations.
As part of the Philippine government’s commitment before the United Nations Human Rights Council, the DOJ has created a panel tasked to review cases involving deaths during anti-illegal drugs operations that have taken place since 2016 under the administration of President Duterte.
During his UNHRC speech, Guevarra presented “the panel’s key findings in its initial output.”
The Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) had turned over to the DOJ for review records of about 200 cases involving deaths in the illegal drugs operations conducted by the two agencies.
“As the panel reviews these new records, the DOJ closely monitors the preliminary investigation and prosecution of 87 criminal cases lodged against over a hundred law enforcement personnel arising from alleged wrongful conduct related to or arising from anti-illegal drug operations,” he said.
“The commencement of new investigations and prosecutorial action will depend on the outcome of the panel’s ongoing work,” he added.
Guevarra also said the Philippines and UN are set to sign a joint program that would help the country investigate and prosecute human rights abuses committed by government forces.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, urged the entire state bureaucracy to cooperate with the ICC in line with the country’s commitments under international law.
"The whole world is watching. The day of reckoning is coming," Hontiveros said.
The opposition senator noted the application to open a full investigation brings the country one step closer towards justice for
Kian delos Santos, Carl Arnaiz, Reynaldo de Guzman, as well as victims filed under “collateral damage” and those specifically targeted by agents of the state.
“These are severe crimes and must not go unpunished,” she said.
Another opposition senator, Leila de Lima said she welcomes the ICC's decision and warned that the days of Duterte are coming to an end.
"The only question now is whether his own death will come as a boon and save him from the trial and judgment of the ICC for his crimes against humanity," said De Lima.
"He might actually be entertaining that notion now, better to die first than to suffer the humiliation of being dragged in chains to The
Hague as one of the few individuals in history to be tried as… an enemy of mankind," De Lima said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, on the other hand, asked if the ICC was also investigating drug-related killings in Mexico and other South American countries.
Sotto, an administration ally, also wanted to know if the ICC was just relying on reports from the petitioners who asked it to investigate.
In the House, opposition lawmakers welcomed the ICC request.
"We welcome the request of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation on the situation in the Philippines, citing the reasonable basis that crimes against humanity were committed in
Duterte's drug war from July 1, 2016 to March 2019," Rep. France Castro of ACT Teachers said.
Castro, member of the left-leaning Makabayan Bloc in the House of Representatives, said the investigation "is a step towards holding President Duterte accountable for his crimes against humanity as commander-in-chief of this so-called war on drugs."
"There will be no impunity for him and his cohort of executioners. He cannot escape justice for the tens of thousands of Filipinos slaughtered at his behest,” he said.
Rep. Manuel Cabochan III of Magdalo said the ICC probe "is another step closer to achieving justice for the thousands of Filipinos slain in the war on drugs and their families."
"I hope that our institutions are strong enough to fulfill their mandates and cooperate with the ICC once the investigation starts," Cabochan said.
"May this be a reminder to the President, his officials, and everyone who openly supported the drug killings that there is always a day of reckoning. Power is not eternal, and soon, justice will be served," he added.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday also welcomed the ICC move. Param-Preet Singh, HRW's associate international justice director, in a statement, said the development was a "big blow" to President Rodrigo Duterte's "presumption of impunity for these crimes."
"If approved, it could bring victims and survivors closer to seeing those responsible for their suffering finally brought to justice," Singh said.
The Commission on Human Rights on Tuesday called on the government to cooperate with the ICC.
“CHR, as the country's independent national human rights institution, continues to advise the present Philippine government to participate in this process of seeking truth and justice for the human rights violations committed in the country,” spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia said.
“There is a need for the present administration to demonstrate genuine openness, transparency and cooperation in its engagement with human rights investigation and accountability mechanisms, including that of the United Nations system, in improving the human rights situation in the country,” she added.
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