ON February 8, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mrs. Fatou Bensouda, announced that she was opening a preliminary examination on the situation in the Philippines. A few weeks later, on March 13, President Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC. He said: “Shit!”It’s a word we surely can’t begrudge him for using. I personally think it’s an understandable reaction for any man who finds himself in a bit of a tight spot.
Of course, Duterte, being himself, didn’t stop there. He blundered on. He called the ICC a court run by “white idiots” in Europe. The ICC, he insisted, could not “acquire jurisdiction over me, not in a million years.” He exhorted us not to believe “them”; presumably he was referring to the aforementioned “white idiots.” He condemned moves by UN officials as “baseless, unprecedented and outrageous.”
“There appears to be,” he indignantly declared, “a concerted effort on the part of the UN special rapporteurs to paint me as a ruthless and heartless violator of human rights who allegedly caused thousands of extrajudicial killings.” Well, at least he got that right.
Two documents lie at the root of Duterte’s spluttering rage: the 77-page complaint submitted to the ICC by the lawyer Jude Josue L. Sabioon April 24, 2017, and the supplementary communication presented to the ICC by Sen. Antonio Trillanes and Rep. Gary Alejanoon June 5, 2017. For a mild-mannered lawyer who endures a host of chronic physical ailments, Sabio spits fire. He cries out in the same disgusted, outraged tone as the late nineteenth century French writer Émile Zola, “J’accuse…!”
Sabio accuses Duterte of being a mass murderer. His main argument is this: since at least 1988, the period spanningDuterte’s mayoralty of Davao City, until 2017, a year after Duterte assumed the presidency, the commission of extrajudicial killings or mass murder has been “repeated, unchanging and continuous.”Leveled at an elected, sitting president, it is a truly jaw-dropping accusation.
Sabio makes his case by drawing on a range of sources—newspaper accounts, reports compiled by human rights organizations and activists, and sworn testimonies by self-confessed killers who were once active vigilante members of Davao’s infamous “death squads.” He has produced an unwieldy document,there is some repetition; it is peppered with provocative phrases such as “national bloodbath,” “terrifying” and “gruesome,” and it is richly detailed. We learn about police killers and paid assassins disposing of slashed and bullet-riddled bodies in caves and quarries, comrade policemen covering up for one another and getting paid handsomely; and the shady activities of Duterte’s own children, specifically his eldest son, Paolo, who, according to the sources Sabio cites, happens to be the alleged “mastermind” behind Davao City’s big-time smuggling rackets, as well asa handful of assassinations.
Alas, it is unlikely that any of this compelling historical context, which runs to 64 pages in length, will be taken into account by the ICC’s preliminary examination, focused as it is on the period from 2016, at the start of Duterte’s presidency. Perhaps more pertinent will be the supplementary communicationfrom Trillanes and Alejano.According to them, the killings occurring under Duterte are “state-sponsored.” It’s an incendiary claim, bolstered by a list of 25 cases of extrajudicial killings. The victims range from the poor sods whose names somehow landed on a police drug-watchlistand were shot dead by unidentified gunmen, to those tagged as “notorious drug pushers” and “high-value targets.” The latter were killed in shoot-outs with police in anti-drug operations—allegedly. Some days were particularly bloody; as many as five people in a day were murdered by motorcycle riding gunmen. The authors see a pattern of killing they describe as a “persistent and regular occurrence in the entire Philippines.” Murder, it seems, has become mundane in Duterte-land, much like typhoons and traffic jams.
The President’s men have been quick to spin foul words into golden lies. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetanoclaim, without the tiniest shred of evidence, that human rights organizations have become “unwitting tools” of drug lords. Sen. Richard Gordon sees foreign destabilizers everywhere, including ICC investigators. These henchmen sound like they’re just treading water. Sabio includes Gordon and Cayetano’s names in his complaint. He wants to hold these shameful apologists liable for complicity in the carnage.
Duterte favors tried and trusted excuses. The deaths are a result of legitimate police operations and officers acted in self-defense, he says over and over again. He has convinced himself that international law does not apply to himor to the Philippines. “The [Rome Statute] treaty did not become part of Philippine law,” he thunders, “because it was not published in the Official Gazette or a newspaper of general circulation.” He has gone on to say how international law cannot “supplant, prevail or diminish domestic law.”
Duterte’s justifications are all bunk. Or, as Sam Zafiri, secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists puts it more politely, they are a “litany of poorly thought out pseudo-legal arguments and self-serving statements.” But we’ve now heard worse. A few days ago, he warned that ICC members would be arrested should they conduct investigations in the Philippines. “You can’t exercise any proceedings here without basis,” Duterte barked, “that is illegal.” Addressing the ICC prosecutor Mrs. Bensouda directly, Duterte told her: “Do not come here [to the Philippines], because I will bar you not because I am afraid of you, I said because you will never have jurisdiction over my person.”
From July 1, 2016 to November 27, 2017, by the government’s own count, 20,322 people have been killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. I have quoted this figure before and it bears repeating.
Is it any wonder that the President is in full, sweaty bluster mode—roaring, hectoring, threatening women, and running scared?