Rodrigo Duterte

While ICC looms, House panel probes Duterte’s drug war killings for the first time

Jodesz Gavilan

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While ICC looms, House panel probes Duterte’s drug war killings for the first time

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

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Lawmakers finally get around to asking questions about Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, that have long been raised and exposed by the media, human rights advocates, and families of victims

MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 21, started its own investigation into the thousands of killings under the war on drugs, almost eight years since Rodrigo Duterte started his nationwide campaign. 

The probe, initiated by the House committee on human rights, aims to “seek the truth concerning the alleged extrajudicial killings” under the drug war. 

“Our aim is to uncover the truth,” House committee chairperson Benny Abante said. “We are not here to pass judgment, we are here to investigate and know all information in aid of legislation.” The house panel’s hearing is also in line with House Resolution 14 filed on June 30, 2022 by Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel of the Makabayan bloc. 

Government data shows that at least 6,252 individuals were killed in police anti-illegal drug operations alone between July 2016 to May 2022, a month before Duterte’s term ended. This number does not include those killed vigilante-style, which human rights groups estimate to be between 27,000 and 30,000. 

Out of the thousands killed, only a handful of cases led to police convictions while many families of drug war victims continue to be harassed as they try to seek justice for their loved ones. 

“All they want is the opportunity to have justice for their loved ones,” said Neri Colmenares, chairperson of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL). “They continue to hope that the perpetrators will be made to account for their crimes soon.” 

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‘Not too late’

Abante said that the probe wants to determine whether human rights violations against civilians were committed, if the state adhered to its obligations to respect human rights during the conduct of the drug war, and if the Philippines’ laws are adequate to address these issues.

But the House probe, which Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas called “historic,” revealed a lot of information that had long been raised and called out by human rights organizations that documented the violent drug war. 

Some of these include information that challenges the long-running narrative of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Duterte administration: that victims fought back, that there was only a small number of cases filed against erring police, and there was overall lack of transparency. These are backed also by investigations by independent bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the United Nations. 

In June 2020, the UN rights office released a report that stated killings were possibly incited by Duterte himself, and that “police repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations.”

The CHR, in early 2021, previously said that its investigation found that injuries of victims “reflect the brutality of the anti-drug campaign and indicate possible abuse of strength and intent to kill by the perpetrators.” 

Isn’t the House panel probe too late then? Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman agreed that the investigation is “rather belated because the first act of extrajudicial killing happened eight years ago,” but emphasized that this is still an act towards appropriate measures. 

“This is still of overriding importance because it will give the committee the opportunity to collate documents and analyze the compendium of evidence on extrajudicial killings in preparation for remedial measures,” he said. 

Abante, meanwhile, said that the hearing “serves to remind us of our duty to uphold justice, to protect human rights, and to ensure accountability.” 

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Not working with the ICC

The House committee hearing comes as developments continue to unfold at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to alleged crimes against humanity committed under Duterte’s drug war. 

The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor is currently investigating killings committed under Duterte’s drug war after the court’s appeals chamber in June 2023 rejected the Philippine government’s appeal. This means that ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s probe can continue, while the next step can possibly be the issuance of a warrant of arrest or summons.

Although it’s uncertain who the subject of the orders will be, the ICC investigation is believed to be looking at Duterte and other high-level officials involved in the drug war. NUPL-NCR secretary-general Kristina Conti, an ICC-accredited assistant to counsel, also said communications submitted by their group to the court identified Duterte as the “perpetrator most responsible for the killings.” 

The Marcos administration continues to be inconsistent when it comes to possibly cooperating with the ICC. The Department of Justice earlier said that it is preparing a briefer for the President in the event that a warrant is released by the ICC, but Malacañang said that Marcos’ stance on the court “remains clear and consistent.”

Abante, however, said that his committee “will not in any way work” with the ICC, but clarified that the court can do what it wants. 

“I believe that this should only focus on the human rights violations in the local area that we have, and let the ICC conduct its own investigation on what it likes to have, but not with the committee on human rights,” he said.

But during the House hearing, families of drug war victims voiced out their concerns about depending on domestic investigations, especially as they continue to face intimidation from state agents in their own communities. 

Sheera Escudero, whose brother Ephraim was killed in 2017, appealed to and challenged Congress and Marcos to act immediately to give justice to the thousands of victims and their families left behind. 

“If all of you truly value the lives of victims of extrajudicial killings and Filipino people, you will cooperate with the ICC [since] we want investigations and trials that are fair, thorough, and comprehensive,” she said.

“Please hear us, please help our family heal,” Escudero added. –

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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.