war on drugs

How politics is turning the tide in ICC probe into Duterte drug war

Jodesz Gavilan

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How politics is turning the tide in ICC probe into Duterte drug war

JUSTICE. Families of victims of extrajudicial killings light candles beside the portraits of their deceased relatives on July 18, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Leila De Lima, freed on bail under the Marcos government, says she has made ICC justice for the drug war a priority

MANILA, Philippines – The tide seems to be turning with more non-opposition lawmakers calling on the Philippine government to help the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s investigation into Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and alleged death squad.

The resolution, filed by Manila 6th District Representative Bienvenido Abante and 1-Rider Representative Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez on November 20, urged agencies “to extend their full cooperation to the ICC Prosecutor with respect to its investigation of any alleged crime within the jurisdiction of the ICC.” 

These recent ICC pushes from the lower house are happening against the backdrop of alleged cracks in the alliance between Duterte and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. When once upon a time Marcos’ justice secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla took hardline positions, saying the ICC threatens Philippine sovereignty, he now says ICC cooperation needs “serious study.”

While the ICC operates on its own “on an entirely different plane,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior Asia researcher Carlos Conde, domestic support would mean a boost – for one, investigators will have better access to evidence here, and if it ever comes to a summons or a warrant, the court can count on Philippine authorities to enforce it.

“I think at the very least, the resolution in the House as well as [Leila] de Lima’s release and bail are certainly creating a conducive condition as compared to the situation [under Duterte and early months of Marcos],” Conde told Rappler on Wednesday, November 22.

Former senator Leila de Lima, who has done incisive investigations into the killings as former chair of the Commission on Human Rights, has said she is willing to help the ICC investigation in any capacity.

The ICC investigation into Duterte’s drug war and alleged death squad has reached a level where the next stage is for Prosecutor Karim Khan to either request for an arrest warrant or summons, if he finds there are enough grounds to do so.

House shifts away from Duterte defender

Under Duterte, there was no support from the congressional leadership to push the ICC probe. The House, in particular, has traditionally taken its cue from the president, especially if she or he is as popular as Duterte, who consolidated power during his time.

But this also means that whenever the political tide shifts, lawmakers can also change their tunes easily.

With Marcos wooing the international community, human rights is slowly evolving from being a liability to becoming potential political capital. Human rights advocates also know how to capitalize on that turn, and frame this change positively.

“In fact, it is a position of courage,” Philippine Coalition for the ICC (PCICC) co-chairperson Aurora Parong told Rappler. “A change of heart for justice by our legislators and the executive department of the Philippine government is a step in the right direction and may very well serve as a deterrent to future crimes.”

All eyes will be on legislators both at the House and the Senate to move these actions forward. Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Bryony Lau said that lawmakers who will sign “are taking a firm and principled stand for accountability.” 

In February 2023 when the Duterte-Marcos alliance was still publicly strong, at least 19 legislators backed a proposed resolution seeking to declare “unequivocal defense” of Duterte “in any investigation and/or prosecution by the ICC.” Nine months later, there are now three pending House resolutions calling on government agencies to cooperate with the ICC.

Read the full resolutions below: 

Person, Face, Head
FREED. Former senator Leila de Lima holds a press briefing in a hotel after her release from detention at the PNP Custodial Center, in Quezon City on November 13, 2023.
De Lima’s strong record vs EJKs

The newly-freed De Lima, who has said she has forgiven everyone except Duterte, said that if the ICC investigation moves faster, her personal countercharges against Duterte “can probably take a backseat.”

“My priority is to assist the ICC for justice for the victims, for the families of the victims of the drug war,” she told Rappler CEO and Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa in an interview on Thursday, November 23.

“If there’s urgency, I can focus on that before pursuing my own case vs Duterte,” she added.

De Lima would bring her expertise to the case, as she was the human rights chairperson who led the investigation in 2009 into the widespread killings in Davao City allegedly committed by the Davao Death Squad (DDS). She even presided over a public inquiry into the matter in Davao City, which Duterte himself attended. He denied the existence of the DDS, but acknowledged that there were “unexplained, unresolved” killings in his city.

De Lima’s investigation opened the floodgates to more whistleblowers coming forward, even before the days of self-confessed hitmen Arturo Lascañas and Edgar Matobato. The documentation of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), mostly made under De Lima’s watch, is considered an important resource on the Davao City killings.

The CHR inquiry led to a 2012 resolution which said that it found “probable cause,” urging the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the “possible administrative and criminal liability” of Duterte. This probe, however, was “closed and terminated.”

In 2016, De Lima initiated Senate hearings and investigations into Duterte’s war on drugs, even linking the nationwide killings to what happened in Davao City.

PCICC’s Parong believes that De Lima’s expertise and the government’s cooperation “will add impetus” to the ICC investigation.

“I wouldn’t say it would make it easier to do the [ICC]’s job, because obviously the proof is when the Marcos administration really does cooperate,” HRW’s Conde said.

There are crumbs of cooperation from Marcos himself. For one, he has given public instructions that the war on drugs should respect human rights. However, that has not stopped the bloodbath because at least 471 drug-related killings were recorded from July 1, 2022, to November 15, 2023, according to the Dahas Project of the University of the Philippines’ Third World Studies Center.

With killings still happening and Duterte’s drug war still alive on paper since Marcos has not scrapped the police circular that operationalized it all, the House resolutions are at most a temperature check for now.

“These are just proposals, these are just motions by a few congressmen,” Conde added.

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– Rappler.com

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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.