International Criminal Court

[OPINION] Why is Duterte so afraid of the ICC?

Chay F. Hofileña

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[OPINION] Why is Duterte so afraid of the ICC?


Will the Marcos administration protect Duterte at all costs? Political decisions, Duterte must know, are always imbued with selfish interest.

It’s been almost six years since Davao Death Squad (DDS) henchman Arturo Lascañas fled the country. Nobody knows where he is exactly, although some speculate he might be somewhere in Europe – especially after the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) gave the Office of the Prosecutor the green light to resume investigations into Rodrigo Duterte’s violent drug war.

Recall that the request to resume the probe was made by ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan in June 2022, despite the Philippine government’s request for a deferral. Khan was convinced that the government was not serious about conducting a thorough and serious investigation. 

Imagine, even just using official government figures of over 6,000 killed in the drug war, only one case (Kian delos Santos) has resulted in the conviction of three police officers. A higher base number often cited by human rights groups – 30,000 killed – would make the number of convictions even more insignificant, if not an absurd proof of what the government claims to be a “working” Philippine justice system.

In February 2023, citing “logistical and administrative constraints,” the Philippine government also asked for more time to file its appeal over the decision of the ICC’s pre-trial chamber to allow Khan to resume his probe. Government also requested that investigation activities be suspended while it appeals the ruling – a plea granted only in exceptional cases. The ICC approved the request for a new deadline, extending the original one, February 19, to March 13. 

Just recently, too, Senator Jinggoy Estrada derided ICC representatives bent on pursuing investigations – in the process showing his ignorance about the international body. In a privilege speech, he arrogantly declared: “Kung sino man ang pinapapunta ng ICC dito sa ating bansa, kung sino mang Poncio Pilato prosecutor, itong mga puting unggoy na ito, hindi na dapat papasukin pa sa ating bansa because that will be an exercise in futility.”

(Whoever the ICC is sending here, this Pontius Pilate prosecutor, these white monkeys, they should not be allowed to enter because that will be an exercise in futility.)

“This Pontius Pilate” that Estrada was referring to was no less than Karim Khan himself – the prosecutor who succeeded Fatou Bensouda. Before assuming his new post, Khan was on the defense side, protecting those accused of heinous crimes against conviction. Now on the other side of the fence, he is already familiar with the usual weaknesses and loopholes in cases handled by the prosecution. It is an asset he brings with him as prosecutor to the ICC case involving extrajudicial killings (EJK) and Duterte. 

Those familiar with him say he is a no-nonsense prosecutor who will push through with a case if he knows “ingredients for a conviction” are present. In other words, EJK suspects should probably start quaking in their boots.

Lascañas, the witness

Ito na ang kinatatakutan ni Rody Duterte,” Lascañas said in a past conversation with Rappler. (This is what Rody Duterte is afraid of.) The whistleblower and former DDS insider was referring to the possibility of himself appearing as a witness in The Hague during pre-trial investigations. If ever, Lascañas, who has issued a very detailed affidavit – the original of which was handwritten and said to have reached 500 pages – would be the star witness of the prosecution, given the amount of information he holds and has divulged.

From the affidavit that we previously reported on, it is evident Lascañas has an excellent and vivid memory – he is able to recall dates, names, and other details that surrounded specific kill orders or operations. He has named names, unafraid to identify those who carried out alleged instructions of Duterte when he was Davao City vice mayor, mayor, and later, Philippine president.

The Philippines is among 17 countries listed by the ICC as having situations under investigation. It is also among the countries in Asia that are part of the roster besides Afghanistan and “Bangladesh/Myanmar.” The vast majority are countries in Africa, with Ukraine as the latest addition.

Ang hingi ko lang sa Diyos, patawarin ako,” Lascañas also said in that past conversation. (All I ask of God is His forgiveness.) He said he can anticipate what Duterte would do in the event an arrest warrant is issued: foremost would be to divert public attention in whichever way he can.

“I know him better than anybody else. If he were a book, he would be a book I had read more than a hundred times,” Duterte’s nemesis said. At this stage, Lascañas is without fear, long prepared for the worst that could befall him. “Bakit ako matakot? (Why would I be afraid?) My death would be a shortcut to victory.”

And his best, most optimistic scenario? That he would be brought before the ICC pre-trial chamber itself. He had been granted limited immunity, stricken off the Interpol’s “Wanted” list, and the next forward step would be entry into the ICC’s Witness Protection Program.

Government’s dilemma

There is no guessing how fast, or how slow, it will take the ICC to issue its summons or warrants – expected to be for Duterte, at the very least. His allies in Congress, led by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (acquitted of plunder charges under Duterte) with loud chorus from the likes of Jinggoy Estrada (detained twice on plunder charges, acquitted in one and released on bail for the second one, also under Duterte), have expressed support for him, pledging to deny ICC personnel entry.

Perhaps unknown to them, the ICC has the option to inform the Assembly of States Parties about a state party’s “non-cooperation” or, sans the diplomatese, obstruction of justice. This can go all the way to the United Nations Security Council.

Processes are painfully slow and they are careful about sanctions, but Europeans have been in the mood lately for wielding the stick when it comes to human rights violations. In cases like this, it is safe to assume, too, that back-channeling or backdoor negotiations are ongoing. Whether these will be to the advantage of Duterte, we can only speculate.

The Philippine government itself faces a dilemma. While segments of it are boisterous in expressing contempt for the ICC and its “colonial” imposition of judicial standards, even asserting that it has no jurisdiction over the Philippines, officials seem to contradict this by dutifully filing appeals and responses to the ICC. Don’t these acts imply inherent recognition of the authority of the ICC? The government insists this is not the case, with no less than the President himself asserting that the ICC threatens Philippine sovereignty.

Duterte was bold when he declared with impunity his Kill, Kill Kill policy as president. He forgot he wouldn’t be president for life. He forgot he wouldn’t be in power forever. He forgot there are international standards that civilized and progressive nation-states recognize and adhere to, and that his stated policy on the drug war belonged to a bygone era.

Will the Marcos administration protect him at all costs? The current rhetoric sounds good and impressive. Political decisions, Duterte must however know, are always imbued with selfish interest. Didn’t he supposedly say at one point after allowing the state burial of the late dictator, “Bayad na ako sa mga Marcos”? (I’ve paid my debts to the Marcoses.)

For now, the ties that bind the Dutertes and the Marcoses appear to be intact. Philippine history, however, is replete with examples of political alliances that eventually fray at the edges then tear big-time. In politics, exquisite timing is always of great importance. –

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.