One year after President Rodrigo Duterte formally notified the United Nations secretary-general that the Philippines was leaving the International Criminal Court (ICC), the withdrawal is now official. That means that any future international crimes committed in the Philippines will be outside of the court’s jurisdiction.
Duterte may think that his country’s withdrawal from the ICC is a show of strength. But on the contrary: his bald-faced effort to protect himself from the court’s reach looks more like an act of desperation for a man who appears deeply implicated in alleged crimes against humanity.
Duterte’s decision to leave the ICC came on the heels of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s announcement in early 2018 that her office would examine the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the context of Duterte administration’s “war on drugs” since “at least” July 1, 2016, the day after Duterte took office.
Duterte has instigated the police and incited police-backed vigilantes to summarily execute suspected drug dealers and users. He has proudly worn his cruelty on his sleeve – during a speech last September he admitted, “My sin is extrajudicial killings.” Just last week, he released a list of 46 people he claimed were “narcopoliticians,” effectively a government-sanctioned hit list, and vowed his drug war would intensify.
Even though the Philippines is no longer a party to the court’s Rome Statute, the ICC can still try crimes committed while the Philippines was a member – from November 1, 2011 until March 16, 2019. Duterte has claimed that the Philippine justice system can deliver justice, but the conviction of three police in a single case to date, against a backdrop of up to 27,000 dead, according to a recent United Nations estimate, tells a very different story.
That the ICC will not be able to pursue justice in Philippines for future crimes highlights the urgency of the UN Human Rights Council dispatching an investigation into “drug war” killings in the Philippines. As a member of the council, the Philippines is obligated to uphold the “highest standards” of human rights, to “fully cooperate” with the council, and accept increased scrutiny of its rights record to ensure it adheres to its membership responsibilities. A UN-led investigation could shine the spotlight on Duterte’s efforts to block accountability, and raise the pressure on him and his government to change course.