The International Criminal Court (ICC) approved a formal investigation into the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”, which has left thousands of deaths.
Judges at the Hague-based court said in a statement Wednesday that there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that the crime against humanity of murder had been committed in the crackdown.
They added that the “so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings are not legitimate or mere excesses in an otherwise legitimate operation.”
The evidence suggested that “a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population took place in accordance with or to promote state policy.”
Former ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had asked judges in June to authorize a full-blown investigation into allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were illegally killed by the police. The case will now be taken up by his successor, Karim Khan, who took office shortly thereafter.
At least 6,181 people have been killed in more than 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since the first day of Duterte’s presidency in July 2016, according to the latest official data released by the Philippines in July this year.
ICC prosecutors in court documents estimate the figure to be between 12,000 and 30,000 murdered victims.
In December 2016, Al Jazeera reported more than 6,000 deaths in the war on drugs. He questioned the inconsistency of the government’s record-keeping system and possible “tampering” with the data.
Human rights groups say the death toll could be at least 27,000, including those killed by “unknown” gunmen, some of whom turned out to be police officers.
The crackdown on drugs 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 their country.
Duterte was chosen on 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.
Prosecutors said the Philippines has not denied that people were killed during police operations, but “instead, they have consistently maintained that these deaths are due to officers acting in self-defense.”
Duterte generated international censorship when he removed the Philippines from court in 2019 after he launched a preliminary investigation into its drug crackdown.
But the judges said that even though the Philippines had withdrawn as a state party to the court, the alleged crimes occurred while the country was still subscribed to the Rome Statute of the court, so it could still investigate them.
Created in 2002, the ICC is a so-called “court of last resort” and only participates in the investigation of the world’s worst crimes if its member states are unable or unwilling to do so.
The ICC investigation will also cover alleged extrajudicial killings in the southern Davao region between 2011 and 2016, when Duterte was mayor.
They were allegedly committed by local police and vigilantes, including a group calling itself the “Davao Death Squad”.
“The people involved in these murders in some cases seem [be] the same people who were later involved in the ‘war on drugs’ campaign, “said ICC prosecutors.
Most of the victims were young men suspected of small-scale drug trafficking or petty crimes such as robbery and drug use “while gang members and street children were also killed,” prosecutors said.
Duterte has repeatedly claimed that the ICC has no jurisdiction over him and that he will not cooperate with what he has called an “illegal” investigation, even threatening to arrest Bensouda at one point.
In a July speech, the president lashed out at the court and said he would continue his fight against drugs. “I have never denied [it], and the ICC can register it: those who destroy my country, I will kill them, ”he said.
But rights groups welcomed the ICC’s decision.
The Philippine organization Karapatan said the court’s comments “reaffirm the views of the victims and their families.”
“Duterte and his henchmen should be held accountable for these crimes,” he said after the court announcement.
“The families of victims and survivors have reason to hope that those responsible for crimes against humanity will finally be able to face justice,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Conde.