Killing as state policy: 10 things the ICC says about Duterte’s drug war

The International Criminal Court has green-lit an investigation into widespread killings in the Philippines, perpetrated under President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent anti-illegal drug campaign.

The latest development comes a little over five years since Duterte’s flagship project started on a national scale, killing at least 6,181 suspected drug personalities in police operations alone, as of July 31. Human rights groups estimate the deaths to be between 27,000 and 30,000 to include victims of extrajudicial killings.

ICC pre-trial chamber on Wednesday, September 15, said there is reasonable basis for Prosecutor Karim Khan to start an investigation “in the sense that the crime against humanity of murder appears to have been committed, and that potential case(s) arising from such investigation appear to fall within the Court’s jurisdiction.”

What else did it say about the Duterte war on drugs? Rappler distills the 41-page decision into the 10 main observations submitted by the pre-trial chamber:

1. Killing was state policy

It is part of government policy to kill, according to the ICC pre-trial chamber, based on different information submitted by the Office of the Prosecutor. 

“The Chamber observes that it is also apparent, on the basis of the supporting material, that the attack took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a State policy,” the ICC pre-trial chamber said. 

The chamber took note of the information that perpetrators were “given cash payments, promotions, or awards for killings in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign.” 

2. Killings in drug war campaign cannot be considered as ‘legitimate nor as mere excesses’ of anti-drug operations

The ICC pre-trial chamber said that killings in Duterte’s war on drugs that occurred between July 2016 and March 16, 2019, are not “considered a legitimate anti-drug law enforcement operation on the part of Philippine authorities” because of lack of due process. 

The Philippine National Police (PNP) also appeared to have ignored its own operational procedures and international standards concerning the use of lethal force.

“According to the available information, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign did not incorporate any formal and reviewable decision-making system in individual cases, and did not afford the interested and affected persons a serious opportunity to participate in the process, or to contest the claims against them,” it said in the report. 

3. Killings were ‘frequently encouraged’ by President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte’s violent rhetoric contributed to the widespread killings seen on the ground. The pre-trial chamber cited his frequent pronouncements both during his campaign for presidency, after he was sworn into office in 2016, and even during his time as Davao City mayor before this.

“The killing of alleged drug dealers and users, or even more broadly ‘criminals,’ has been frequently encouraged by Rodrigo Duterte,” the ICC said.

“He is also reported to have boasted of the level of safety in his city and stated that his approach to achieving that was: ‘Kill ’em all,’” it added.

The pre-trial chamber also mentioned the apparent encouragement from other officials: “The Chamber also notes that there is information that others, and in particular [then] Philippine National Police chief Ronald Dela Rosa, made similar statements, declaring that killing those involved in drugs was the intention in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign.”  

4. Official government documents link killings to drug war

The ICC pointed out several official government documents covering Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, including some that hinted at killings as part of operations. (READ: How Duterte gov’t tried to fix legal loopholes of drug war)

“There is a clear link between killings and the government’s formal anti-drug campaign,” the pre-trial chamber said.

It cited the “significant” PNP Command Memorandum Circular No. 16-2016, which uses the word “neutralization,” pertaining to suspected illegal drug personalities. The ICC Prosecutor said the word was being used “in its euphemistic meaning of killing.”

“It is significant that a marked increase in killings of persons allegedly involved with drugs was reported following the assumption of the presidency by Rodrigo Duterte and issuance of CMC No. 16-2016,” ICC said.

The ICC also said that the decrease in the number of killings following the periods when the campaign were suspended in the past show that “the killings occurred in execution of, or because of, the state policy.”   

Still, despite these suspensions, the ICC pointed out killings “never ceased completely.”

5. There is ‘apparent unreliability and arbitrariness’ in the use of drug watch lists

The Duterte government’s war on drugs relies on its “apparent unreliability and arbitrariness” use of drug watch lists. 

“There is no information available as regards any formal status or procedural requirements applicable to such lists,” the ICC said, citing Amnesty International’s investigation that the watch list and the method “are deeply problematic.” 

It cited supporting materials submitted by the ICC Prosecutor, including anecdotes that some end up on lists because of problematic reasons and were often unverified.

6. Drug war targeted poor Filipinos

Human rights groups have repeatedly blasted the war on drugs as being anti-poor, only targeting small-time alleged drug personalities and not those who are part of huge drug syndicates. 

This is affirmed by the ICC pre-trial chamber in its decision, which said that supporting material established that the drug war “affected certain segments of the population disproportionately.” 

“Other supporting material points towards the conclusion that there is a pattern of harm predominantly affecting poor, low-skilled residents,” it said.

According to information the ICC received, victims were likely:

  • Male
  • Between the age of 20 and 40 years
  • Resided in poor communities, shantytowns, or pockets of poverty if they are based in cities 
  • Jobless or working in the informal economy, possibly as construction workers, tricycle drivers, scavengers, or “neighborhood watchmen”
7. ‘Private individuals’ killed people as part of war on drugs

Thousands of killings outside of police operations were still committed in line with Duterte’s violent campaign. 

The ICC pre-trial chamber said in its report that “it is sufficiently established, at the present preliminary stage of the proceedings, that private individuals killed persons as part” of the war on drugs. 

“The Prosecutor submits and the supporting material establishes sufficiently at the present stage, that the targeted victims were civilians suspected of being connected to illegal drug activities, such as persons on drug watch lists, persons who had been publicly identified as drug personalities, and those who had previously surrendered to authorities as part of Operation Tokhang,” it said.

There is indication, the ICC added, that the perpetrators were tapped by police, or took advantage of “a connection to the police” to carry out the killings. Some cases also saw suspects declare that they were “soldiers” of Duterte’s drug war. 

The ICC mentioned three different scenarios where people were killed outside of police operations: 

  • “Riding-in-tandem on a motorcycle or in a van, shooting the victims at close range, and swiftly leaving the area”
  • “Targeting victims at their homes”
  • “Killings in unknown circumstances, but with bodies disposed of in public locations, tied up and frequently displaying a cardboard sign purporting that the person was a drug user or dealer”

The ICC also highlighted that the Prosecutor identified three categories of suspects: 

  • Officers concealing their identity
  • Private individuals working under police 
  • Private individuals or groups “instigated to act” by the government’s war on drugs
8. There are still no ‘meaningful steps’ taken to investigate killings

The ICC pre-chamber took note of the lack of accountability and widespread impunity in the Philippines in relation to Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign, affirming the long-running issues faced by families of victims. (READ: In Duterte’s drug war, justice is ‘nearly impossible’)

“The supporting material indicates that the Philippine authorities have failed to take meaningful steps to investigate or prosecute the killings,” the ICC pre-trial chamber said.

“It appears that only few cases have proceeded to trial, and that only the case of the murder of Kian delos Santos has proceeded to judgment,” it added.

The chamber also noted that the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) included the drug war deaths among the key accomplishments of the Duterte administration in 2017, as well as Duterte’s consistent rhetoric that he would protect his men who killed as part of their duty.

It was not mentioned in the ICC decision, but just in his last State of the Nation Address, Duterte said it was high time for Congress to pass a law that would give free legal assistance to state agents who would be charged for incidents related to the performance of their duty. (READ: After killing 7,000 in drug war, Duterte gov't cries due process for cops)

9. Drug war killings are ‘widespread and systematic’

The attacks under President Rodrigo Duterte has become widespread and systematic, the ICC pre-trial chamber said in its report. 

The killings are considered widespread because “the estimates of the aggregate number of victims, as well as by its territorial extent, comprising the entire territory of the Philippines,” even if the killings committed during the Duterte presidency covered by the ICC report were only between 2016 and 2019. 

The pre-trial chamber said the systematic characteristic was “discernible” based on how it had become state policy to kill.

10. There are similarities between the nationwide war on drugs and Davao City killings

The similarities between the killings under the nationwide drug war and those that occurred in Davao City when Duterte was mayor and vice mayor “merit further investigation,” including the systematic involvement of security forces. 

“Similarities in the modus operandi are also discernible,” it said, citing information that there were policemen from Davao City who were transferred to Metro Manila in 2016. 

The pre-trial chamber also noted Duterte’s track record of publicly “supporting and encouraging the killing of petty criminals and drug dealers in Davao City.” 

“These public statements are similar to those made before and during the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign, and indeed appear to form a coherent progression,” ICC said. – Rappler.com

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.

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