The International Criminal Court (ICC) has rejected an attempt by the Philippines to block an investigation into the thousands killed in the country during the former President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
In January, the court in The Hague granted its prosecutor’s request to reopen an investigation into the killings, having suspended the probe in November 2021 at the Philippines’ request after it argued that its own institutions were capable of prosecuting the alleged crimes.
In its pre-trial chamber, the ICC said that while it recognises the Philippines’ duty to fight drug smuggling and addiction, the “so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation”.
As international criticism of the drug war mounted, Duterte unilaterally withdrew the Philippines from the ICC’s founding treaty in 2018, but appeals judges ruled prosecutors still had jurisdiction over the alleged crimes because they occurred when the country was still an ICC member.
In March, current Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said he would cut off contact with the ICC after another appeal to halt the court’s probe was rejected.
Duterte “has always maintained that as an independent and sovereign state, only Philippine courts can try any crime committed in Philippine territory”, Duterte’s former spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement on Tuesday.
The former president “will face all his accusers anytime but before Philippine courts and before Filipino judges only”, Roque said.
Thousands of Filipinos, mainly low-level dealers and users, were killed by law enforcement with “near impunity” during Duterte’s fierce crackdown on illicit drugs, with many more gunned down in mysterious circumstances.
Philippine National Police say nearly 6,000 people were killed in the operations during Duterte’s administration, but human rights groups have said that the death toll could be three times higher.
A report published by the United Nations in 2020 alleges that tens of thousands of people were killed, including at least 73 children, the youngest being five months old.
The ICC is investigating these allegations, some made by victims of the systematic violence meted out by police, who say they killed suspects only in self-defence.
Duterte, a former mayor of the southern city of Davao who campaigned for the country’s top job on a platform of fighting crime, launched his “war on drugs” as soon as he took office in June 2016, and repeatedly urged police to “kill” drug suspects despite criticism from opponents and human rights groups.
The former president denies saying he gave instructions to kill, other than in self-defence, and on Tuesday said yet again that he was willing to go on trial over his drug war, but only in a Philippine court.
The country’s Office of the Solicitor General said on Tuesday that it remains committed to internal investigation and prosecution related to the “war on drugs”.