Philippines: Landmark ICC investigation into Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs”

The announcement by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that she is formally seeking an investigation into the Philippine government’s deadly “war on drugs” is a landmark step which brings justice closer for thousands of bereaved families, said Amnesty International today.

“This announcement is a moment of hope for thousands of families in the Philippines who are grieving those lost to the government’s so-called “war on drugs”. This is a much-awaited step in putting murderous incitement by President Duterte and his administration to an end,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

While the Philippines has long faced issues with impunity prior to the Duterte administration, the situation significantly worsened with the widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects since 2016. “The ICC’s intervention must end this cycle of impunity in the country and send a signal to the police and those with links to the police who continue to carry out or sanction these killings that they cannot escape being held accountable for the crimes they commit.”

State-sanctioned killing and incitement to violence by government officials has become the norm under the Duterte administration

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International's Secretary General

On 14 June 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she has concluded her preliminary examination in the Philippines and is seeking authorisation from the Court’s judges for a full investigation into crimes against humanity, torture and other inhumane acts committed in connection with the country’s “war on drugs” between 1 November 2011 and 16 March 2019.

These include extrajudicial executions committed by police in “anti-drug operations” following incitement and encouragement by high-ranking officials, including the President.  

“State-sanctioned killing and incitement to violence by government officials has become the norm under the Duterte administration,” said Agnès Callamard. 

“Considering the Philippine government’s role in these ceaseless killings and the absolute impunity which prevails in the country, the ICC investigation is a crucial step for justice to move forward.

“All states must offer their full cooperation to the ICC Prosecutor’s office so that an investigation can proceed as quickly as possible. The Philippines authorities,human rights groupsandotherrelevantactors must ensure evidence is preserved and the Court must ensure the protection of those who may assist the investigation.”

Years of cold-blooded killings amounting to crimes against humanity

In February 2018, the ICC launched a preliminary examination into possible crimes committed in the country. The following month, in March 2018, President Duterte announced that the Philippines would withdraw from the Court. This withdrawal took effect a year later, on 17 March 2019, but did not remove the ICC’s power to investigate crimes in the country.

Since the beginning of the Duterte administration in June 2016, thousands of people mostly from poor and marginalized communities have been killed – either by the police or by armed individuals suspected to have links to the police – as part of the government’s so-called “war on drugs”.

Amnesty International has published major investigations detailing ongoing extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations by police and their superiors. The organisation has determined that the crimes reach the threshold of crimes against humanity. The killings continue unabated.

Further UN action needed beyond the ICC

Despite condemnation from the international community and local and international human rights groups, President Duterte continues to explicitly encourage police to kill and has promised them immunity. Rather than facing justice, implicated police chiefs have received promotions.

While the Philippines government has the primary obligation to conduct genuine investigations into allegations of crimes against humanity, it has repeatedly failed to do so.

“The Prosecutor’s announcement puts President Duterte and others involved in this murderous campaign firmly in the crosshairs of justice. But the ICC intervention must be reinforced by greater efforts from the international community, starting with the UN Human Rights Council,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The UN Human Rights Council must launch its long overdue investigation into the Philippines to examine crimes under international law and other serious violations of human rights committed over the full duration of the Duterte administration, including as part of the so-called “war on drugs”. The perpetrators and architects of these crimes must be held to account.”

Amnesty International and other civil society groups have repeatedly expressed concerns over the HRC’s failure to address the situation and the dangerous message it sends. The Council must now act to send a strong message that it too will no longer allow the Philippine government to continue its campaign of human rights violations with impunity.