MANILA — Judges at the International Criminal Court authorized an investigation Wednesday into possible crimes against humanity conducted during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent “war on drugs,” saying alleged extrajudicial killings represented a “widespread and systematic attack” against civilians.
The investigation opens a potential path for accountability in the Philippines, though any prosecution is likely to take years. Duterte’s term of president ends next year. He is maneuvering for a successor to protect him.
Duterte, a populist who rose to power in 2016, is perhaps best known internationally as the architect of a drug war that has killed thousands. Official figures count some 6,000 dead, but the ICC prosecutor previously estimated that between 12,000 and 30,000 civilians were killed between July 2016 and March 2019.
Judges conducting a pretrial assessment of prosecutorial material said they indicated the war on drugs “cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings neither as legitimate nor as mere excesses in an otherwise legitimate operation.”
A spokesperson for the president said that the Philippines would not cooperate with the investigation, according to Reuters. The Philippines withdrew from the ICC in 2019, in what was widely seen as an attempt to evade a probe. Duterte’s lawyers have argued the Philippines isn’t under the court’s jurisdiction, even though the highest Philippine court said that it must continue to cooperate with ICC investigations.
The drug war is wildly popular in the Philippines, and Duterte positioned himself during his presidential run as the only candidate who offered a solution to the prevalence of drugs, a longtime frustration among the urban poor.
Human rights organizations welcomed the announcement, which offers hope to survivors as many cases languish in local courts. A verdict can take up to 10 years in the Philippines, and only a handful of killings under Duterte’s term have resulted in convictions.
“Duterte and his cohorts should be made accountable for these crimes,” the human rights organization Karapatan said in a statement.
Prosecutors are examining killings between 2011 and 2019, when the Philippines was party to the Rome Statute, which established the court. Deaths between 2011 and early 2016 cover Duterte’s time as deputy mayor and mayor of Davao City, where hundreds of killings were affiliated with a vigilante group known as the “Davao death squad,” which researchers and witnesses previously linked to Duterte.
The ICC prosecutor said that these Davao killings were similar to those across the country after he became president. Experts believe that a link between Duterte’s Davao approach and his presidency could be used to strengthen Duterte’s case.
Duterte recently said he would take on a bid for the vice presidency in 2022, a move analysts say was primarily motivated by a desire to defend himself against the risk of prosecution by the ICC.