Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the opening session of the ASEAN and European Union summit at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines on November 14, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Today’s statement by President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court (ICC) was no surprise. Soon after taking office in June 2016, Duterte unleashed his “war on drugs,” which has left more than 12,000 people dead. No one responsible for these unlawful killings has yet been held to account.

The scale of the killings in the context of the government’s “war on drugs” prompted ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to announce last month that she would examine the deaths, many of which are linked to “extrajudicial killings in the course of police anti-drug operations.” The prosecutor’s analysis of “drug war” crimes could result in a formal ICC investigation if there is proof the violations amount to crimes against humanity, and in the absence of justice in national courts.

Duterte has long showed disdain for the rule of law. Last August, Duterte vowed to pardon and promote – rather than punish – any police officer who carried out an unlawful killing. His announcement to pull out of the ICC, which is designed to prosecute those most responsible for grave crimes, is a barefaced attempt to shield him and high-ranking officials from possible ICC prosecution.

But not so fast. A withdrawal from the ICC requires a formal notification to the United Nations secretary-general, which only becomes official one year later. Even then, the court can still prosecute any international crimes committed while the Philippines was still an ICC member.

Duterte’s statement highlights the urgent need for a UN-led investigation into the drug war killings. At the current session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Iceland’s foreign minister reminded the council of its responsibility to “to try and ensure the Philippines meets its human rights obligations.” A UN inquiry would add to the international pressure on the Duterte government to stop the killings and to cooperate with efforts to bring those responsible to justice, including before the ICC.