Philippines won't cooperate with ICC probe of 'war on drugs', says presidential spokesman

Demonstrators, who are calling for a stop to extrajudicial killings, marching towards the presidential Malacanang Palace during a protest in Manila on June 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (REUTERS) - The Philippines will not cooperate with a formal investigation launched by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into possible crimes against humanity committed in President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs", a presidential spokesman said.

Judges at the ICC on Wednesday (Sept 15) approved a formal probe into Mr Duterte's signature anti-narcotics campaign in which thousands have died, a move welcomed by rights groups.

Judges' assessment of material presented by prosecutors was that "the so-called 'war on drugs' campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation", but rather amounted to a systematic attack on civilians.

Mr Duterte and his police chiefs say killings were in self-defence, while his government insists the ICC has no right to meddle in the country's affairs.

"If there are complaints, it should be filed in the Philippines because our courts are working. The ICC has no jurisdiction," presidential spokesman Harry Roque told a news briefing.

"When we became a party in the (ICC's) Rome statute, we did not surrender our sovereignty and jurisdiction."

Government data shows 6,100 suspected drug dealers have been killed by security forces in anti-drug operations since Duterte took office in mid-2016.

Rights groups say many thousands more were assassinated in slum communities, mostly users killed by mystery gunmen who were never caught, and accuse police of involvement. Police reject that.

Mr Duterte has previously sought to shrug off the investigation and on Thursday, his chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said the ICC had no jurisdiction.

"The President's position does not change. ICC is bent, at the inception, of proceeding with this case in violation of our Constitution and defiance even of its own Rome statute," Mr Panelo told DZBB radio station.

Mr Panelo said ICC investigators would not be permitted to enter the country to conduct the probe.

Victims' lawyers, however, say interviews can be conducted virtually.

The ICC was set up to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity and has jurisdiction if a member state is unable or unwilling to do so itself.

In March 2018, Mr Duterte cancelled the Philippines' membership of the ICC's founding treaty. But under the ICC's statute, it has jurisdiction for crimes committed between 2016 and 2019.

Mr Duterte, 76, who won the presidency on an anti-drugs and corruption platform, ends his single six-year term in June 2022, but is planning to run for vice-president.

In his last State of the Nation address, Mr Duterte defended the campaign, saying it had cut crime and improved peace and order.

The President, who remains popular at home, previously dared the ICC to put him on trial, saying he has never denied that he will kill people out to destroy the country.

Human rights groups accuse Mr Duterte of inciting deadly violence and say police have murdered unarmed drug suspects and staged crime scenes on a massive scale. Police deny this and Mr Duterte insists police are under orders to kill only in self-defence.

Philippines rights group Karapatan said the ICC's comments "reaffirms the views of victims and their families".

"Duterte and his cohorts should be made accountable for these crimes," it said after the ICC decision.

The investigation comes at a critical time for Mr Duterte, who leaves office next year and cannot run for a second term.

He has confirmed he will seek the vice presidency, while his daughter, Ms Sara Duterte-Carpio, a mayor, has this year been widely touted as a potential successor, moves critics believe are designed to insulate him from an indictment, at home or abroad.

"His best option is to support the candidacy of Mayor Sara," said political analyst Temario Rivera.

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