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Tough Choice for Philippines’ Marcos
Should he let the International Criminal Court have Duterte?
By: Viswa Nathan
The Philippine president Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. is facing a critical challenge, arguably the most critical he has faced since assuming office seven months ago. That is, how to deal with the International Criminal Court (ICC) reactivating its investigations into the human rights violations and crimes against humanity that are alleged to have occurred under the watch of his predecessor, Rodrigo R. Duterte (above, left, with Marcos).
Marcos has not so far commented on the matter. But his justice secretary, Jesus Crispin Remulla, said that the ICC is not welcome in the Philippines. “I will not stand for any of these antics that will tend to question our sovereignty. We will not accept that,” he said. However, Marcos is in a predicament. Whatever decision he takes on the matter will likely be detrimental to his presidency. Credibility and his standing as a leader are at the heart of the issue.
Despite everything some might find wrong with Duterte, he commanded 75 percent popularity in his last month in office, more significant than what Marcos scored to succeed him as the only president elected with a clear majority since the EDSA uprising. And, now, though out of office, Duterte continues to wield considerable influence over the armed forces and the police.
Can Marcos afford to ignore such factors on the home front and let the ICC and the Human Rights Watch take Duterte apart? Marcos had said during his election campaign that if elected, he would focus on prevention, educating the youth of the ill effects of drugs, and improving rehabilitation services, as Duterte’s ruthless enforcement measures “can only take you so far.”
However, the drug war Duterte ordered seems to be continuing under the Marcos administration. The Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines has reported 90 drug-related killings in the first three months of the Marcos presidency. In addition, Senator Leila de Lima, whom the Duterte administration imprisoned in 2017 allegedly involved in drug trafficking in the New Bilibid Prison, remains in custody despite the fact that key prosecution witnesses have retracted their affidavits, admitting they were pressured into testifying against the former head of the Commission on Human Rights who investigated the Davao Death Squad linked to the extrajudicial killings when Duterte was the mayor of Davao.
On the international front, Marcos is making all-out efforts to attract foreign investment to support his economic agenda. So can he afford to ignore the Philippines’ international obligation—in this case, to the Rome Statute, to which the country is an early signatory? Under the statute, the ICC always has jurisdiction over the period a state has been an ICC member.
In bilateral dialogues, the European Union has regularly reminded Manila constantly of the requirement to fulfill its obligations under the international conventions and also told the government that the extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs will be a determining factor for the Philippines to continue enjoying GSP+ privileges, a special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance for developing nations that slashes tariffs to zero. Besides, some 40 countries led by Iceland, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have been critical of the war on drugs violating human rights.
Still, Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the ICC as the international body began looking into his war on drug excesses. Launching the anti-drug war soon after taking office, Duterte declared: “I will be harsh.” If any resistance would place the police officer’s life in jeopardy, he added, “then by all means, shoot and shoot him dead.”
Promising to eradicate illegal drugs and crime within the first six months of his presidency, he told the police force: “Do your duty, and if in the process you kill one thousand persons…I will protect you.” He also told them not to “bullshit” him, but if they did their duty, “I will die for you.”
For a population that reveres machoism, his daily afternoon television appearance in the early days of his presidency, issuing new edicts and naming suspected drug lords, was good entertainment. At the same time, the relationship between the ICC and Manila turned acerbic, with the ICC investigation of the drug war continuing until it was suspended in November 2021 as a matter of procedure at Manila’s request and an assurance to scrutinize all cases of wrongdoing internally and act upon them.
But seven months later, when the Duterte administration failed to prove that Manila had taken concrete steps, the criminal court judges approved the ICC prosecutor’s petition to reactivate the investigation.
Now, if the Marcos administration will ignore all that to shield Duterte, who maintains that he will “never be tried by an international court,” how will it sit against Manila complaining against Beijing not honoring the International Court of Justice ruling against China’s nine-dash line claiming territorial rights over almost the entire South China Sea?
Duterte had promised to eradicate the drug menace within six months. But it proved an impossible dream although, according to government figures, PNP and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency had gunned down 6,252 individuals from Duterte’s first month in office (July 2016) to the end of May 2022, the month before he vacated the presidency. Human rights activists and other observers think the figure excluded all other vigilante-style killings that some citizens carried out as encouraged by Duterte. If all are taken into account, they claim that the total death toll could double, perhaps even reach as high as 30,000. And according to reports, drugs have continued to flow into the country. Nor has usage dropped significantly.
Can all these be ignored in the name of the national sovereignty that Remulla spoke of? It is a tough choice and the measure of Marcos’s presidency.