International Criminal Court approves war crimes probe into Philippines ‘war on drugs’ campaign

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his fourth State of the Nation address at the Philippine Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Judges at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday approved a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity allegedly committed under the leadership of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the context of his “war on drugs”.

The ICC said in a statement that judges had approved a request by prosecutors to begin the investigation into potential murder as a crime against humanity.

Judges’ assessment of material presented by prosecutors, was that “the so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation”, but rather amounted to a systematic attack on civilians.

Human rights groups accuse Duterte of inciting deadly violence and say police have murdered unarmed drug suspects on a massive scale as part of the campaign. Police deny this, and Duterte says the police are under orders to kill only in self-defence. The government in Manila could not immediately be reached for a reaction late on Wednesday.

Philippines rights group Karapatan said the court’s comments “reaffirms the views of victims and their families.”

“Duterte and his cohorts should be made accountable for these crimes,” it said after the ICC decision.

The Philippines will not cooperate with the formal investigation, a presidential spokesperson said.

The chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said the ICC had no jurisdiction.

“The president’s position does not change. ICC is bent, at the inception, of proceeding with this case in violation of our constitution and defiance even of its own Rome statute,” Panelo told DZBB radio station.

Panelo said ICC investigators would not be permitted to enter the country to conduct the probe.

In March 2018, Duterte cancelled the Philippines’ membership of the ICC’s founding treaty. But under the ICC’s statute, it has jurisdiction for crimes committed between 2016 and 2019.

The judges said that relevant crimes appeared to have continued after that date, but that the court was limited to investigating those suspected to have occurred while the Philippines was a member.

Duterte, 76, who won the presidency on an anti-drugs and corruption platform, ends his single six-year term in June 2022, but is planning to run for vice president.

Duterte, in his last State of the Nation address, defended the campaign that has seen police kill more than 6,100 suspected drug dealers in sting operations, saying it had cut crime and improved peace and order.

The president, who remains popular at home, has previously dared the ICC to put him on trial, saying he has never denied that he will kill people out to destroy the country.

Duterte lashed out at the court, saying he would continue his fight against drugs. “I have never denied (it), and the ICC can record it: Those who destroy my country – I will kill you,” he said.

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