International Criminal Court

Human rights groups hail ICC prosecutor’s move vs Duterte’s drug war

Jodesz Gavilan

STOP THE KILLINGS. Rights group holds a protest calling for an end to the drug war.

Rappler file photo

(2nd UPDATE) President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials must be held accountable over the thousands of deaths in the drug war, rights groups say

Human rights groups welcomed the International Criminal Court (ICC) Office of the Prosecutor’s announcement that it has already sought permission to open an investigation into the crimes against humanity allegedly committed under President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody campaign against drugs.

In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), in a statement, said this move brings families of the thousands killed “another step closer” to getting justice.

“Duterte’s brutal war on drugs normalized violence in our society and terrorized the population into silence,” iDEFEND spokesperson Judy Pasimio said late Monday, June 14.

“He must be held liable along with the police and military leadership that implemented the bloody campaign,” she added.

Outgoing ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Monday, June 14, announced that her office has applied with the pre-trial chamber for authorization to proceed with the investigation into the drug war and killings allegedly carried out by the Davao Death Squad from 2011 to 2016.

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In a document, Bensouda said that the extradjucial killings were committed “pursuant to an official State policy of the Philippine government,” and that they “appear to be a defining characteristic of the national war on drugs campaign.” 

Duterte’s war on drugs has led to at least 6,117 killed in police operations, according to government count, as of April 30, 2021. Human rights groups estimate the number to be between 27,000 to 30,000 to include victims of vigilante-style killings.

Karapatan, meanwhile, calls the latest development a “long-awaited step towards justice and accountability” amid a human rights crisis in the country.

“[The ICC move] is yet another damning indictment of the Duterte government’s murderous policies that have killed – and continue to kill – thousands of Filipinos with impunity,” Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said in a statement.

The group also strongly urges the pre-trial chamber to grant the request, and for incoming ICC prosecutor Karim Khan to push forward.

‘Dealt a blow’

Human Rights Watch (HRW) associate international justice director Param-Preet Singh said that impunity was “dealt a blow” with these developments.

“If [the application is] approved, it could bring victims and survivors closer to seeing those responsible for their suffering finally brought to justice,” she said.

An approval from the ICC pre-trial chamber would bring the Duterte government under more intense international scrunity, amid widespread clamor for accountability from both local and international groups.

The possible probe is a welcome development given the latest United Nations resolution, which only called for “technical assistance” to the Philippine government amid widespread killings.

“The UN HRC should course-correct and stand up for the Philippine’s victims instead of giving support to the government that kills them,” Singh said.

In June 2020, United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet released a report which said that the national campaign was being carried out without due process. The local system, it added, wasn’t enough to exact accountability over the killings.


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In a statement on Tuesday, the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) said that with the latest announcement, its “hopes are high that…a day of reckoning will come for the perpetrators of the tens of thousands who were intentionally and systematically killed as a result of the Philippine drug war.”

“The decision of the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, consistent with fairness, common decency, good core morals, and values, is also a global victory for it sends a message to all would-be tyrants that the political direction and methods which cause mass slaughter are not permissible in this day and age,” PAHRA said.

It added, “This also is a step toward ensuring that the truth about the mass atrocities in the Philippines is officially recorded and historically institutionalized and that non-repetition is guaranteed when political and democratic space becomes broader again in our country.”

The alliance urged the Philippine government to fully cooperate with the ICC “should the request for investigation be approved by the pre-trial chamber.”

In a joint statement, eight human rights organizations, including some who earlier released individual statements on the ICC announcement, said, “The ICC Prosecutor’s decision to recommend opening this investigation provides hope that the thousands of victims of the government’s ‘war on drugs’ campaign may someday receive justice.”

The eight organizations were listed as Balaod Mindanaw, DAKILA – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, Karapatan Alliance Philippines, iDefend, Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights (LILAK), PAHRA, Task Force Detainees in the Philippines (TFDP), and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA).

The eight organizations further called for the UN Human Rights Council to adjust its approach regarding the situation in the Philippines, asking them to mandate a comprehensive, international investigation into the extrajudicial killings and the range of serious human rights violations in relation to the drug war. They also called on the Philippine government to refrain from obstructing ICC proceedings and also ensure the safety and security of victims’ families who might cooperate in the investigation.

“The ICC Prosecutor’s decision is a message to the world that mass atrocities anywhere cannot be tolerated, and that perpetrators must eventually face justice,” said the groups. –

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.