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Smokescreen Justice for ‘Drug War’ Deaths in the Philippines

False Claims of Accountability and the International Criminal Court

President Rodrigo Duterte’s official spokesperson Harry Roque at the House of Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines May 15, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte today implied that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should not investigate Duterte’s “war on drugs,” which nongovernmental organizations and media outlets estimate has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people over the past 16 months.

At the ICC’s annual diplomatic conference at the United Nations in New York, Duterte spokesperson Harry Roque reaffirmed the ICC as a “court of last resort” and asserted the Philippine government’s prerogative to “bring to bear our national criminal justice system upon those who violate our laws.” Roque was evidently responding to the October 13, 2016 statement by ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who expressed concern about the killings and warned that her office was “assessing whether a preliminary examination” into the drug war killings should be opened.

Roque is correct that under the ICC’s statute, the court may only step in when national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. Yet his assertion that the Philippine government has been willing and able to investigate those deaths has simply not been true. The government has made no genuine efforts to seek accountability for drug war abuses. There have been no successful prosecutions or convictions of police implicated in summary killings despite compelling evidence of such abuses. Duterte has publicly vowed to pardon, reinstate, and promote officers convicted of extrajudicial killings. Duterte and his supporters have systematically vilified, harassed, and sought to intimidate institutions and individuals – including UN officials – who have sought accountability for the killings.

The government’s claims of its preparedness to prosecute offenders is grotesquely deceptive in the face of this grim reality. It is not known if and when the ICC will act in the Philippines. In the meantime, a UN-led international probe of drug war killings could help expose the extent of the abuses and possible targets of a criminal investigation, including possible crimes against humanity.

Duterte’s thousands of victims deserve more than empty platitudes in diplomatic circles. They deserve justice. 

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