The ‘war on drugs’ probe faces a setback as the Philippines refuses to rejoin the ICC

Memorial for Tokhang victims

A memorial activity demanding justice for some of those killed in the conduct of the government's controversial anti-drug campaign. Photo from the Facebook page of Rise Up for Life and for Rights.

President Ferdinand Marcos told the media that after consulting his legal team, the Philippines will not rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Philippines withdrew from the ICC in March 2018 during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who was accused of committing grave crimes against humanity linked to the bloody “war on drugs,” known locally as Tokhang. The withdrawal took effect in March 2019. Duterte’s term ended on June 30, 2022.

Tokhang led to thousands of killings and arrests of suspected drug users, peddlers, and gang leaders. There’s no official number of Tokhang-related deaths, but research suggests it ranges from at least 6,000 to 30,000 people. Human rights groups said Tokhang indiscriminately targeted urban poor communities, which led to arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. Police claimed law enforcement officers were forced to shoot drug suspects in self-defense. Duterte defended the police and accused Tokhang critics of promoting an anti-government agenda.

Families of Tokhang victims filed cases against Duterte’s government at the ICC. In response, the ICC conducted a review and made this initial statement in 2021:

[T]he Chamber concludes that there is a reasonable basis for the [p]rosecutor to proceed with an investigation, in the sense that the crime against humanity of murder appears to have been committed, and that potential case(s) arising from such investigation appear to fall within the Court’s jurisdiction.

Marcos, whose vice president is the daughter of Duterte, said there’s no need for an ICC probe since government agencies are already reviewing the conduct of police who enforced Tokhang:

We’re saying that there is already an investigation going on here and it’s continuing, so why would there be one like that [in the ICC]?

Some senators said Marcos’ decision affirms the country’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla echoed the point about the ICC interfering with the Philippines’s domestic affairs:

[Our justice system] is not perfect but it’s functioning, we are not a banana republic so why should they want to go to the country? Unless the agenda is political, and we don’t want political agenda by people other than us. We do our politics, not foreigners.

Duterte also refused to be held accountable by a foreign court. He insisted that if convicted, he can only be jailed in a Philippine jail facility in Muntinlupa City.

Former Senator Leila de Lima urged Marcos to reconsider his decision. She added that even after the country’s formal withdrawal from the ICC, the body retains jurisdiction over cases involving crimes that took place before 2019. This means ICC can look into the Tokhang-related cases that occured during the first half of the Duterte presidency.

In a press statement, the human rights group Karapatan pointed out the implication of Marcos’ decision:

Marcos Jr. has indicated where his administration stands on issues pertaining to the respect for civil and political rights, particularly its callousness on the plight of the drug war victims and their families and their calls for accountability. He has effectively denied them justice.

Kristina Conti, legal counsel for a volunteer group providing legal assistance to survivors and families of Tokhang victims, rejected the arguments of the Marcos government

She warned that perpetuating injustice will generate wider dissent:

When the people feel that the government cannot or will not protect them and their interests, and that the powerful can get away with anything, even murder, beyond alienation and disappointment, it is Marcos who should very well know how the people can turn their backs against and topple those in power.

The ICC prosecutor has given all concerned parties, including the Philippine government, until September 8 to submit observations and comments on the decision to continue its probe of the Tokhang-related cases.

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