Victims’ families despair as Philippines leave International Criminal Court

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In June of 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the leader of the PDP–Laban party, managed to win the national elections in the Philippines and become its new President. The country had been going through an economic and social crisis, with a drug epidemic having gripped the nation for quite some time, and Duterte used the promise of solving these issues to get the necessary votes he required to defeat his opposition.

As the former mayor of Davao City, Duterte had built up quite a reputation for being ruthless against criminals, drug users and even beggars on the street. Hundreds of people were killed under his rule, some in extrajudicial killings carried out by the authorities, while others were attacked by a group of vigilantes ominously known as the ‘Davao Death Squad’. This group were said to have the backing of Duterte as well, who encouraged normal citizens to take up arms and do their part in the fight against crime and drug abuse. It was this same attitude that would eventually attract a large number of supporters across the country, who were tired of seeing their youth and a sizable portion of their population turning towards what they deemed to be immoral habits.

During his election campaign, Duterte ran on the promise of ridding the Philippines of all crime within six months by following the same strong arm tactics that he pursued while mayor of Davao City. He promised to kill as many criminals or drug users as he possibly could, and once again asked citizens across the country to do the same, any time they saw any evidence of a crime being committed, especially drug use.

Duterte’s populist approach to politics, and animated style of speech allowed him to win the elections, and it wasn’t long before he implemented his strategy to rid his country of all criminals. Police were given special powers to commit extrajudicial killings as they pleased, while many common citizens were also pardoned from murder charges if they could prove the victim was a criminal or drug user.

As dead bodies of alleged criminals started turning up in the streets all over the country, many people rejoiced that finally there was a leader in office that did not lack conviction to follow through on his promises. However, soon it became apparent that, no matter what the case, the powers that granted the authorities to conduct extrajudicial killings would eventually be abused, and it wasn’t long before human rights advocates both within and outside the country started to call on Duterte’s aggressive anti-drug movement to stop.

By 2018, estimates of the number of people killed in extrajudicial or drug or crime related incidents was reported to be well over 8000, with some even suggesting numbers as high as 20,000. What truly made the situation even more desperate was the lack of evidence in many of these cases. It was reported that the police and many common citizens had started to use their new power to settle personal scores, and that they would plant drugs on the bodies of the alleged victims after they had already been killed, in order to remain within the ‘confines of the law’.

After widespread condemnation for the apparent human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Duterte administration, many human rights activists threatened to take the leader and his accomplices, to the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, in response to these threats, Duterte announced that the Philippines did not require outside arbitration or interference, and would officially withdraw from the ICC. This decision was challenged in the nation’s top court, as the families of the various victims of Duterte’s war on drugs argued that the ICC was their only logical route to justice.

A lawyer for a coalition of rights activists named Romel Bagares filed an injunction against the move, and called the withdrawal “a terrible setback in the long fight against impunity in the country”. He added that the ICC was a “last resort” when institutions fail and that the Philippines government had “grievously been failing in the last two years, with apparent government inaction on thousands of deaths arising from the president’s drug war”.

In the motion filed in the Supreme Court, activists argued that withdrawing from the ICC would deprive Filipinos of “effective remedies” against genocide and other crimes against humanity. They further added that “those who kill with impunity will only be further emboldened”, and there needed to be an independent enquiry into the various rights abuses perpetrated by Duterte and his supporters.

However, even after reviewing the various injunctions being filed by innocent Filipinos looking for justice, and after taking a whole year to examine each case in great detail, the Supreme Court of the Philippines officially approved of Duterte’s decision to withdraw from the ICC on March 17. The court declined to overrule President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to leave the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal, effectively removing the only obstacle that remained in Duterte’s reckless war on drugs and crime.

The Philippines became only the second country after the little African nation of Burundi to officially withdraw from the ICC. Amnesty International slammed the decision as a “futile attempt to escape international justice”, and demanded that the “States at the U.N. Human Rights Council must launch an independent, international investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines, including the thousands of extrajudicial killings still being committed”.

Currently, several human rights activists and organizations have filed petitions and challenged the decision of the Supreme Court. However, at the moment it seems like a losing fight, with many of these activists worried about retaliation from Duterte and the state. With Duterte increasingly exhibiting behavior usually associated with despots, it remains to be seen whether many of the victims seeking justice against his strong arm tactics actually find it. For the time being, it seems like President Rodrigo Duterte has the upper hand.


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