Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the change of command ceremony of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines April 18, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did something extraordinary this week: He confessed.

During a speech on September 27, Duterte admitted culpability for extrajudicial killings: “What is my sin? Did I steal even one peso? Did I prosecute somebody who I ordered jailed? My sin is extrajudicial killings.”

That statement is a boon to the prosecutor's office of the International Criminal Court, which is conducting a preliminary examination into possible crimes against humanity linked to Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs.” Conservative estimates indicate more than 12,000 men, women, and children have been killed in the anti-drug campaign since Duterte took office in June 2016. Duterte’s admission could also boost efforts by United Nations member states seeking a UN probe into the killings.

Philippine government officials quickly attempted to walk back Duterte’s statement. Within hours, Duterte’s spokesman described it as “playful” and insisted that “I don’t think the context there was literal.” In a special press conference called today, Philippine National Police Director-General Oscar Albayalde dismissed the president’s remarks as an expression of “frustration” rather than an admission of guilt.

Duterte’s statement should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. At a May 2015 election campaign rally, he warned that “If I became president, you [alleged criminals] should hide. I would kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable. I will definitely kill you. I do not want to commit this crime. But if by chance per chance God will place me there, stay on guard because that 1,000 [killed in Davao City] will become 100,000.”

During an August 2016 press conference, Duterte repeatedly took personal responsibility for the policy of killing drug suspects: “Extrajudicial killing? I will do the explanation in public for international release if you want. For the things that really happened during the criminals and the police in operations – punitive operations, police action – I am willing to answer all of them. I assume full responsibility for what happened because I was the one who ordered it.”

Duterte’s admission should spur efforts domestically and internationally to ensure he is indeed held to account for the “drug war” deaths he has instigated and incited.