International Criminal Court to Pursue Action Against Philippines’ Deadly Drug War

The International Criminal Court has announced plans to move forward with its investigation of atrocities committed in the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” under former President Rodrigo Duterte, according to Human Rights Watch. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao who rose to power in 2016 on a fierce campaign that pledged to eradicate criminality and drug use, garnered controversy during his tenure for his vocal collusion with state police and military actors to carry out extrajudicial violence against drug users and sellers. Official government figures project that Duterte’s administration claimed over 6,500 lives through state-sanctioned execution of drug suspects, though estimates from the Human Rights Commission of the Philippines and external organizations suggest that the death toll could be nearly three times as high. 

The Hague-based court’s international proceedings against Duterte began in 2018, though Manila swiftly deferred cooperation by withdrawing membership from the tribunal’s jurisdiction in 2019, and later announced in 2021 that government leaders would launch a separate national probe into the allegations. Having received little evidence of progress made on these promised domestic initiatives that would warrant a credible and comparable investigation, ICC prosecutor Karim Khan successfully appealed to panel judges on Thursday to reopen proceedings, though the extent to which Filipino officials plan to comply with the Court is dubious.  Secretary of Justice Jesus Crispin Remulla disparaged the ICC’s call to further pursue the case in a media briefing to Reuters, calling the decision an “irritant” and unfaithful disruption of internal government processes, which reportedly have been geared toward improving police accountability with the public under the new administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. “They are insulting us,” he argued, “and I will not welcome [the ICC] to the Philippines until they make clear that they will respect us in this regard.”  

Remulla’s remarks deflect an alarming trend of government-coordinated efforts to abdicate responsibility for the litany of human rights abuses and exercises of corruption that mark Duterte’s legacy, and have since continued under new leadership. The Philippine Star reported in January that the Philippines’ interior secretary requested the courtesy resignation of hundreds of top-ranking police officials in order to “cleanse” the force of members with prior involvement in the illicit drug trade. While this could mark a step toward basic reform and accountability, it also conveys a timely attempt to save face from the ICC’s scrutiny,  given that the handling of drug offenses under President Marcos has been plagued with the same faults of its predecessor. The son of a former Filipino dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Marcos Jr. repurposed much of Duterte’s rhetoric with a softer tone, switching out the boogeymen of drugs and crime with the nobler goal of solving community poverty. In reality, these promised reforms have not been enacted, and deadly anti-drug raids in the Philippines are still commonplace- though Foreign Policy Magazine indicates that operations may have “gone underground”, shifting from state police on the ground to a network of private contractors corroborating with the authorities. The static rates of drug-related murder between administrations raise further questions; the anti-violence research project and advocacy organization Dahas reported 152 drug-related murders within the first five months of Marcos’ rule, which surpassed Duterte’s count of 149 killings in the last sixth months of his presidency. 

Although emerging research shows that drug decriminalization and harm reduction policies can effectively reduce drug-related deaths and foster better public health outcomes, the global War on Drugs, which originated in the United States’ racist practices of policing, surveillance, and mass-incarceration, has historically been unfazed by these humanitarian goals. “The war on drugs will continue so long as people are making money from it, ” Joel Ariate Jr., a researcher at the University of the Philippines, told Foreign Policy, expressing cynicism for the ICC’s intervention. “What chance is there that this process can lead to justice?” 

Others remain more hopeful that the Court’s investigation of the Philippines could bring forth an important precedent for the humane and dignified treatment of substance users globally, and may help to deliver justice to the victims of this war. If the Marcos administration truly seeks to amend the harm done under Duterte’s regime, and wants to take responsibility for the damage still being done, compliance with the Court’s investigation will be a crucial step toward a just outcome. “The ICC investigation is the only credible avenue for justice for the victims and their families’”, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera. “As the court’s judges agreed, Philippine authorities are not “undertaking relevant investigations” into these crimes or “making a real or genuine effort” to carry these investigations out. The ICC offers a path forward to fill the accountability vacuum.”