Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, has threatened prosecutors representing the International Criminal Court (ICC) who may seek to investigate his controversial campaign against drug users for evidence of potential crimes against humanity, reports Al-Jazeera. Duterte’s incendiary comments are the latest in a long line of brash and aggressive statements that target the liberal institutional order, and are particularly notable in the aftermath of his decision to withdraw The Philippines from the ICC. Duterte’s words are a troubling challenge in a region with its fair share of threats to peace, including tensions on the Korean peninsula and increasingly muscular assertions by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Duterte threatened Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor investigating the drug war in the Philippines, saying that her initial findings would be undertaken “without basis,” and as a result, he would arrest her if she attempted such an undertaking. His justification for this claim included a denunciation of the ICC, claiming that the Philippines had been fraudulently compelled into signing the Treaty of Rome, the multilateral agreement establishing the court. Duterte has made a habit of rejecting the institutions that the Philippines has embraced under previous administrations; indeed, this has even reached the United States, a long-time sponsor of the Philippines. “I will break up with America,” Duterte said in 2016; “I would rather go to Russia and to China.”
Duterte’s inflammatory comments certainly cannot be indulged by the international community, particularly given current global volatility. The stability of the international order is predicated on respect and trust for the transnational institutions which bind states all over the globe together. Furthermore, while international institutions can certainly be flawed, they also promote international norms associated with transparency and accountability, which ultimately function to reinforce trust and communication between states, factors which when combined vastly strengthen the capacity of diplomats and politicians to ensure that points of international tension do not evolve into military conflicts. Duterte’s aggressive political decisions – domestically in the escalation of his drugs war and internationally in his repudiation of international organisations – have also seen the Philippines shift closer to authoritarian controlled states such as China, further weakening the liberal democratic consensus underpinning the international institutional regime.
Duterte’s domestic and international actions do not exist in a vacuum. The violent drug war that he has conducted is highly controversial; opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes has disputed official figures and claimed that Duterte’s campaign has claimed over 20 000 lives in total. This has sparked condemnation from the international community. Simultaneously, Duterte has justified a military intensification undertaken by China in the South China Sea. Even with the installation of missile systems on islands in the contested Spratlys archipelago, within striking distance of Manila, Duterte has dismissed anxieties, describing them as a bulwark against the United States of America; “Ignore the missiles there. They are not for us.”
Rodrigo Duterte’s words and deeds fly in the face of long-established relationships and norms that link the Philippines to the international community. His unpredictable nature and his alignment with authoritarians is dangerous in a region that is already filled with simmering tensions. It remains to be seen whether the international community can offer a salve for Duterte’s anger; perhaps the only effective solution is mobilization by the Filipino people to the ballot box in 2022. For the victims of Duterte’s brutal drug campaign, that may be too long to wait if the president weakens transparency and attacks the accountability mechanisms provided by the international community.