war on drugs

Impunity under Marcos: Defending Duterte at the expense of drug war victims

Jodesz Gavilan

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Impunity under Marcos: Defending Duterte at the expense of drug war victims
'Lawmakers should be making laws for the people, not enabling and protecting mass murderers of people,' says human rights lawyer Kristina Conti, who has assisted drug war victims' families

MANILA, Philippines – Fidel* finally found the body of his son Jon* after two weeks, already cold in a morgue that refused to grant an autopsy. His body was discovered near the boundary of Quezon City and Caloocan, meticulously wrapped in black trash bag – a common theme among vigilante-style killings in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. 

‘Pinako sa ulo ang anak namin, pinahirapan siya na walang kalaban-laban at walang awa,” Fidel recalled to Rappler. “Hindi mo maisip kung sinong may kayang gumawa sa tao ng ganito.” (They hammered a nail into his head, he was mercilessly tortured. You cannot imagine what kind of person would do this.)

His son was with friends when they were allegedly abducted by police in civilian clothing, according to information that reached Fidel. He was sure Jon did not use drugs, but it doesn’t matter now because he still ended up dead, among the thousands slain in Duterte’s war on drugs.

Noong nabalitaan ko na pulis ang nasa likod ng nangyari, hindi na kami dumulog sa kanila kasi naunahan na kami ng takot,” he said. (When we found out that police were involved, we didn’t seek their help anymore because we got afraid.)

The reality of losing their eldest son was yet to sink in when Fidel started getting death threats. You’ll be next, the text messages read, you’ll join your son. This forced him to leave and stay in a place hours away from his still-grieving family. Fidel was only able to go back home after 40 days, to a family grappling with questions of why a tragedy of such intensity happened to them. 

Magbalak man ako na makakuha ng hustisya, wala akong lakas ng loob, kaya iyak na lamang ang ginagawa namin,” he said. (Even if I wanted to, I do not have the strength to pursue justice, so we can only cry.)

Families want Duterte arrested

Fidel and his family make up the thousands left behind by Filipinos killed under Duterte’s violent war on drugs. Government data shows that at least 6,252 individuals were killed in police anti-illegal drug operations alone as of May 2022. This number does not include those killed vigilante-style, which human rights groups estimate to be between 27,000 and 30,000. 

The pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently authorized the resumption of an investigation into the killings under Duterte’s drug war, a decision the Philippine government recently appealed

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan is expected to gather more evidence that could potentially lead to a request for the issuance of summons or warrants, the target of which is still not clear. 

For many families grieving, it is Rodrigo Duterte that should be arrested and tried in court for the violence he unleashed in the Philippines.

But for several legislators – elected representatives of Filipinos – the person who repeatedly publicly ordered the slaughter of his own countrymen is worthy to be protected from accountability. Defending Duterte comes at the expense of drug war victims.

UNRESOLVED. Families of victims of extrajudicial killings call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the unresolved deaths during president Rodrigo Duterte’s admininistration. Rappler photo
Ex-president Macapagal-Arroyo leads Duterte defenders

Nineteen legislators from the House of Representatives, led by former president and now House Senior Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, filed a resolution urging the lower chamber to declare “unequivocal defense” of Duterte “in any investigation and/or prosecution by the [International Criminal Court].” 

The proposed House resolution pointed to the “remarkable achievements” hit by Duterte’s war on drugs, with Arroyo herself stating that she wants to ensure that “justice is meted out fairly to everyone.”

Similar measures were filed in the Senate, where many of Duterte’s close allies hold office, including his former police chief Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, the drug war architect who was named in then-ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s first report submitted to the pre-trial chamber.

Senator Robin Padilla’s resolution also called for defending Duterte, while Senator Jinggoy Estrada wants the Senate to oppose any investigation conducted by the ICC. Estrada even called ICC personnel “puting unggoy” (white monkeys) during a privilege speech on Wednesday, February 22.

Human rights lawyer Kristina Conti said that this should show the world that the government “reneges on treaty obligations” and that political interests are prioritized over universal values and international law. It also just reinforces the long-running “problem of hollow representation” in Philippine politics where elected officials are “in power only for their self-interest.”

“Lawmakers should be making laws for the people, not enabling and protecting mass murderers of people,” said Conti, secretary-general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL)-National Capital Region. 

“It is sheerly disappointing, but not surprising,” she added.

Small number of convictions

Conti serves as assisting counsel from NUPL for RISE UP, a group composed of families of drug war victims whose members have filed communications with the ICC over the years. 

She said the victims had given up hope that the government would “make right its wrongs,” and that the transition from Duterte to a Duterte-Marcos alliance would make things worse. 

The attitude of the Marcos administration regarding the ICC comes amid its effort to present a “better” human rights situation after Duterte left the presidency in 2022. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla himself even vowed “real justice in real time” before the United Nations. 

But families of drug war victims continue to face challenges in seeking justice for their loved ones. They have been blocked from getting important documents and harassed by police. Many have resorted to taking legal action at the domestic level, pinning their hopes on international mechanisms, such as the ICC, to go after Duterte. 

There are only a small number of convictions, including against policemen involved in the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in 2017. In 2022, a cop was convicted of torture and planting evidence in the case of Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman, but a murder case remains pending.

In August 2021, the ICC Registry’s Victims Participation and Reparations Section found that victims “overwhelmingly support an investigation” into Duterte’s drug war. Its report said that 94% of the victims consulted wanted the ICC prosecutor to investigate crimes while some of them said they wanted perpetrators identified and brought to justice, an end to impunity, and to prevent future crimes.

“Our government at present simply cannot be trusted to protect the Filipino people,” Conti said. “It follows then that the people wielding their power to effect revolutionary change is something we could all look forward to.”

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Signs that PH is not serious about accountability

Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia senior researcher, said lawmakers are playing to Duterte’s base at this point, considering he ended his term as the most popular president post-Martial Law

The resolutions filed in Congress also signal that his allies will not be abandoning him anytime soon. When the ICC pre-trial chamber authorized the resumption of the probe, several officials were quick to come to his defense. 

There were those who falsely claimed that Duterte did not order any killings, even though there is a treasure trove of publicly available information, such as speeches, that shows that killing was front and center in his flagship anti-illegal drug campaign. 

“They are trying to put up the walls this early to frustrate the ICC from coming in to do its job,” Conde told Rappler on Tuesday, February 21. “They are conditioning the public to push back [against investigations] through whatever means.”

But outside the Philippines, the recent moves by elected officials to defend Duterte should be treated by independent bodies, such as the ICC, as explicit signs that the state is unwilling to take accountability seriously. 

ICC jurisdiction remains

The current administration has been anything but silent on its stand on the ICC investigation. Marcos himself has echoed the position of his predecessor, questioning the jurisdiction of the international court since the Philippines ceased to be a member-state in 2019 after Duterte unilaterally withdrew from it.

The jurisdiction argument has been debunked numerous times. The ICC is investigating incidents that happened between November 1, 2011, and March 16, 2019 – a day before the Philippines’ withdrawal took effect. 

Article 127 of the Rome Statute, the court’s founding document, explicitly states that withdrawal “shall not affect any cooperation with the court in connection with criminal investigations and proceedings.” Clearly, the ICC retains jurisdiction over alleged crimes that occurred when the Philippines was still a member-state.

The repeated use of the jurisdiction messaging is just one of the many themes the Marcos administration and Duterte allies are using to deflect from accountability. They have also falsely pointed out this is also a sovereign issue.

For Conde, the ICC and other independent bodies should view the government’s actions regarding Duterte’s involvement in the drug war as tell-tale signs of how the state plans to deal with the thousands of families still longing for justice for their slain loved ones. 

Instead of buckling down, accountability bodies should “use whatever means at their disposal to ensure that they can fulfill their mandates.” Other countries who Marcos has “charmed” should also call for him to match his human rights rhetoric with actions. 

“This is a test case of how these accountability measures are going to grapple with tyrannical leaders,” Conde said. “A failure to pursue the investigation will send a strong but wrong signal against international justice.”

Future of justice in PH

The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor can still continue its investigation even without the cooperation from the Marcos administration. The Supreme Court also said that the Philippines is still obliged to cooperate with any ICC proceedings.

But it cannot be denied that future moves at the ICC will heavily depend on the attitude of the Marcos administration, especially if the court decides to issue an arrest warrant or summons and proceed to a trial. There is no trial in absentia at the ICC.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), in a January statement, urged Marcos to cooperate and to view the ICC investigation as an opportunity to fulfill his “earlier commitment in ensuring a ‘high-level of accountability.'”

Kung wala ka namang ‘tinatago, kung willing ka na tuldukan na itong issue ng extrajudicial killings, kung gusto ‘nyo malaman ang katotohanan, kung sino ang accountable, at mabigyan ng justice ang biktima, i-open natin itong Pilipinas,” CHR commissioner Beda Epres told Rappler in an interview on February 10.

(If they have nothing to hide, if they’re willing to put an end to the issue of extrajudicial killings, if they want to find out the truth and see who’s accountable, and to give justice to the victims, let’s open up the Philippines.)

HRW’s Conde says the neverending “mind-blowing spins” and attacks by the Philippine government against the ICC ultimately affect families who have suffered for years and will continue to face the long-lasting impact for generations to come.

“[This shows that] tyrants like Duterte and leaders like Marcos can bend international justice, international accountability mechanisms, to their will, to the detriment of course of people who bear the brunt of human rights abuses,” he said.

It has been almost four years since Jon was mercilessly taken from his family. His then-pregnant wife now lives far away, left behind to raise three children alone.

The pain is still fresh, his father Fidel admits, but he takes courage from other families of drug war victims he has connected with over the years. It’s in their presence where he could unravel and be at peace, even for just a short while.

Amid all setbacks, the families are brought together by a common desire for justice. And they see the ICC as the avenue for it.

Nagkakaroon kami ng lakas ng loob para lumaban sa katotohanan kasi iyon ang sandata ko ngayon para sa gusto namin makamtan,” he said. “Hustisya lang naman po ang hinihingi namin, wala nang iba.” (We get the courage to fight for the truth because that’s our only weapon to get what we want. We just really want justice for our loved ones, nothing else.)

Apparently, a number of their elected representatives don’t think they do. – Rappler.com

*Names have been changed for their protection

Read Rappler’s series revisiting families of victims of Duterte’s violent war on drugs:

PART 1 | Drug war widow: Why is Duterte still free when our loved ones are dead?
PART 2 | Pain lingers as 2 brothers lost under Duterte’s drug war, 1 under Marcos
PART 3 | After losing mother to Duterte’s drug war, 17-year-old asks: Will justice ever come?
PART 4 | Under Marcos, can Duterte be held accountable for drug war killings?

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.