EXPLAINER: What is the value of Belgium tribunal’s guilty verdict on Duterte?

MANILA, Philippines – The International Peoples’ Tribunal in Brussels, Belgium, handed down on Thursday, September 20, a guilty verdict on President Rodrigo Duterte for crimes against humanity over the alleged “gross and systematic violations of human rights” in the Philippines.

This is not a legally binding judgment, however. The Belgium tribunal is among a number of tribunals organized by civil society organizations and private individuals to highlight pressing issues in different countries.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque has called it a “sham proceeding” and “propaganda by the Left.”

Filipino lawyer Emerlynne Gil of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), however, said, “People's Tribunals do not have legal authority, but many of them are viewed with some credibility because of the civil society organizations convening them and the individuals invited to preside over them.”

If it’s not legally binding, what is its value? “Its biggest value is its strong moral persuasion and political push that would complement the overall efforts from all sources in the ultimate search for justice,” said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) that pushed for the tribunal case in Brussels.

But how can a non-legal tribunal have an effect of persuasion on Duterte when he is the same president who withdrew the Philippines from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the globally-acknowledged Rome Statute?

The pressure would be coming from its relation to the ICC.

A copy of the tribunal’s findings would be forwarded to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda who is currently conducting a preliminary examination into the numerous killings in the war on drugs here. It is a stage where she will try to establish jurisdiction over the alleged crimes.

"If findings from a People’s Tribunal on the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines are sent to the ICC Prosecutor, it will contribute to the ICC Prosecutor’s analysis of information on the preliminary examination it is conducting,” said Gil.

Administration critics like Senator Antonio Trillanes IV say Duterte is threatened by the ICC examinations. “Based on our sources in Malacañang, he’s already shaking in his boots,” said Trillanes back in February.

A month after that statement, Duterte withdrew from the ICC, but the legality of the withdrawal is still being tackled by the Supreme Court.

Different groups have been trying to increase pressure on Duterte to keep the Philippines in the ICC. Otherwise they will paint him as a president who did not want to give his people an “insurance” against horrific crimes.

Whether or not the ICC case will proceed to an actual investigation or a trial, Olalia said they must sustain pressure if only to stop people from dying “in our alleys, streets, and houses.”

Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was also found guilty of systematic violation of human rights by the same tribunal in 2015, but the biggest difference for Duterte is that in his case, proceedings are already ongoing at the ICC. (READ: International Criminal Court issue will mark Duterte presidency)

What is the reputation of people’s tribunals? It depends on who you ask. Roque, for example, has dismissed it as propaganda of the Left. 

Perhaps the most prominent and credible people’s tribunal ever assembled was the one by Nobel peace prize winner Bertrand Russell in the 60s. They found the United States guilty of genocide in Vietnam. The tribunal was presided over by noted philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.

The tribunal is credited for having helped increase pressure on the Lyndon Johnson government to end the war in Vietnam.

One of the jurors in the Belgium tribunal that found Duterte guilty is Atlanta-based human rights lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani, whose recent work involves cases of immigrants in the crackdown of the Trump administration. 

Shahshahani also became known for representing Muslim woman Lisa Valentine, jailed in 2008 for refusing to remove her hijab inside a courtroom. Their victory in that case led to courts adopting a non-discriminatory policy on hijabs, hailed as a siginificant feat in the battle for religious freedom.

In a 2015 people's tribunal that found former president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino also guilty of human rights violations, the lead prosecutor was notable lawyer Ramsey Clark, who was attorney general in the Lyndon Johnson administration. 

The 90-year-old Clark is a colorful character, slammed by some for his shift from being America’s lead defender, to prosecuting the country in people’s tribunals for war crimes. He also has had interesting clients like Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) when Arafat was sued by a family of an American who was killed by the PLO.

Friends and colleagues describe Clark as “baffling” and “mysterious,” even an “enigma,” as they are quoted by the Washington Post.

But whoever sits on a people's tribunal, it remains an unofficial proceeding with no legal weight.

“But they serve a purpose, which is to publicize a specific point of view or information that isn't making it into the mainstream. They also provide a rallying point for supporters,” said Janet Anderson, editor of Justice Tribune, which covers international courts and tribunals.

For Olalia, Duterte must take it into serious consideration.

“The lesson of history is that not all the problems of a society and the world nor the legitimate demands of the people are solved solely through legal means and fora. And it is those who refuse to recognize the huge writings on the wall that will eventually go down in shame,” Olalia said.

What is Duterte “guilty” of? Duterte was found guilty by the tribunal of crimes against humanity for alleged systematic killings in his bloody war on drugs.

Police say at least 3,967 drug personalities have been killed in legitimate operations while at least 16,355 deaths are still under investigation, for a total of 20,322 drug-related deaths since the brutal campaign began. 

Saying that it wants to know why there were so many deaths, the Supreme Court said in an initial resolution that "the government's inclusion of these deaths among its other accomplishments may lead to the inference that these are state-sponsored killings."

The verdict of the International Peoples’ Tribunal also covers the “ongoing harassment, extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples and their displacements from their ancestral homes” allegedly brought about by the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.

In essence and practice, what Defendant Duterte has done and continues to do is a genocidal war against the majority of exploited sectors in the Philippines especially the indigenous peoples,” said the verdict signed on September 19, Belgium time, by jurors Mamdouh Habashi, Monica Moorehead, Ties Prakken, Sarojeni Rengam, Azadeh Shahshahani, Gianni Tognoni, Roland Well, and Michael Yoshii. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.