Here’s what could help the ICC’s inquiry into Philippines president for crimes against humanity

The odds of an International Criminal Court inquiry leading to a trial are slim. What's needed, says HRW, is a parallel U.N. investigation.

In this photo taken on March 2, 2016, shows Davao City Mayor and Presidential Candidate Rodrigo Duterte speaks to reporters during his campaign sortie in Lingayen, Pangasinan, north of Manila. CREDIT: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images.
In this photo taken on March 2, 2016, shows Davao City Mayor and Presidential Candidate Rodrigo Duterte speaks to reporters during his campaign sortie in Lingayen, Pangasinan, north of Manila. CREDIT: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images.

The International Criminal Court is launching an inquiry into potential charges of crimes against humanity against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, more than two years after he took office and kicked off a violent “anti-drug” campaign that has left at least 4,000 people dead. According to his spokesman, investigating the complaint against the president is a “waste of the court’s time and resources” and that Duterte is “sick and tried of being accused,” and “wants to be in court and put the prosecutor on the stand.”

But in reporting the preliminary ICC inquiry — Reuters pointed out that, “Since it was set up in 2002, the ICC has received more than 12,000 such complaints or communications, just nine of which have gone to trial.”

Indeed, the ICC has some pretty spectacular failures under its belt, including letting Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir off the hook and being powerless to take action against deceased Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam.

Still, Param-Preet Singh, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program, told ThinkProgress that although it’s true that the ICC has yet to launch an all-out investigation, it represents progress.


“Today’s move is still a step toward a full-blown investigation…it’s the ICC saying there is something about [what is happening in the] Philippines that warrants further investigation and scrutiny,” said Singh. However, she added, “The headline of this ICC inquiry is great, but we need to shift the political narrative.”

She said that the “lack of clear confrontation by the international community on the legitimacy of this drug war and and the lack of accountability” need to be addressed.

Rights groups say that death toll resulting from Duterte’s campaign is much higher than the official estimate of 4,000 — HRW estimates over 12,000 have been killed — and accuse the police and Duterte of carrying out extrajudicial killings that largely target small-time dealers and poor communities.

To put things into perspective, a study (using FBI data) released in August indicated that if the United States were to escalate its drug war to match what’s going on in the Philippines,  one person would be killed every 21 seconds, with almost 1.5 million Americans being killed in 2016 over their use or association with narcotics.


But despite all the reports by rights groups and all of the photos of bodies in the streets, Singh said the ICC has a tough road ahead. It has to prove that they represent crimes against humanity, that they are happening as a matter of policy, and that there’s “zero justice to date” for the victims.

What might add to the punch of a potential trial before the ICC — assuming things go that far — would be a U.N. investigation. An ICC trial could take anywhere from six months to ten years, whereas a U.N. investigation, she said, has “clearer timelines for reporting, at least.”

The danger, Singh said, is that the U.N. will just figure “the ICC has it covered,” but a double-barrel approach is the way to “shrink the space for impunity in these crimes.”

Although it’s hard to predict if the United States will eventually take a different stance towards Duterte’s actions, “Increased ICC scrutiny makes it harder to brush off these abuses as businesses as usual,” said Singh. At the very least, she added, “It’s useful leverage with other countries that know better.”

Certainly, when Duterte pushes back against even discussing human rights, President Donald Trump complies. Signalling where he stood on such international investigations,Trump also intended to close the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, which is responsible for investigating war crimes and preventing genocides (for now, the position of the envoy attached to the office is retained).

Duterte’s lack of respect for the court is notorious — he’s called the ICC, “bullshit” and “useless,” threatening to pull cancel his country’s membership to the court. Singh said that withdrawing the Philippines from the ICC won’t protect Duterte from being potentially held accountable for his actions while the country was still a member.