The chief prosecutor of the international criminal court has requested authorization to open an investigation into crimes against humanity during the deadly “war on drugs” in the Philippines, in one of her last acts before resigning this week.
Fatou Bensouda asked the judges of the world’s only permanent war crimes court to authorize an investigation into allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were illegally killed by police between 2016 and 2019.
The Philippines left the ICC in 2019 after the court launched a preliminary examination into President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, but Bensouda said the court could still investigate crimes committed while Manila was a member.
“I have determined that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crime against humanity of murder has been committed … in the context of the Philippine government’s ‘war on drugs’ campaign,” Bensouda said in a statement.
“Available information indicates that members of the Philippine national police, and others acting in concert with them, have illegally killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians” during the period under investigation.
Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer whose term ends Tuesday, said “any authorized investigation in the Philippines will fall to my capable successor, Karim Khan, to carry it out.”
Britain’s Khan will be sworn in on Wednesday with a host of other challenges in his inbox, including an investigation into Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Duterte’s crackdown on drugs has sparked international censorship and prompted the ICC to launch its preliminary investigation three years ago.
Repression is Duterte’s signature political initiative and he fiercely defends it, especially from critics such as Western leaders and institutions who, according to him, do not care about his country.
He was elected in 2016 with a campaign promise to get rid of the Philippine drug problem, openly ordering the police to kill drug suspects if their lives are in danger.
More than 6,000 people have died in more than 200,000 anti-drug operations carried out since July 2016, according to official data. Human rights groups estimate that the death toll could be several times higher.
Local officials have put many suspects on “drug watch lists” and then the police have visited their homes, a situation that often ends in a deadly shooting that officials say was in self-defense.
Amnesty International said that the ICC investigation was a “historic step”. “This announcement is a moment of hope for thousands of families in the Philippines mourning those lost in the government’s so-called ‘war on drugs’,” Amnesty Chief Agnes Callamard said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the court had “struck a blow” at Duterte’s “presumption of impunity” for the killings.
Duterte, who speaks harshly, has repeatedly asserted that the ICC has no jurisdiction over him and that he will not cooperate with what he has called an “illegal” investigation. He even threatened to arrest Bensouda.
Duterte had previously told the court that the country’s justice system is working, amid allegations that local courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute suspects in the killings, one of the criteria for the ICC to open a full investigation.
Duterte has said he is willing to go behind bars if the Philippine judicial system proves his guilt. “If the court says I must go to jail, I will go to jail. That’s not a problem. I did what I set out to do, ”Duterte said in a televised speech in December 2020.
Bensouda said that previous cases showed that the ICC “retains jurisdiction over crimes that allegedly occurred in the territory of that state during the period it was a state party” in international court.
He added that the court “does not take a position on the internal policies of any government” to combat drugs, but that it was acting under its mandate to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The court would also investigate allegations of torture and other “inhumane acts” dating back to 2011, he said.