MANILA — A group of families of drug war victims have written to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to oppose the request of the Philippine government to defer its probe on the drug war killings in the country.
Irma Locasia, Dennise David, Maria Lozano, Mariel Sabangan, Normita Lopez, Purisima Dacumos and Christine Pascual, with the Rise Up for Life and for Rights group, sent an email to ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan on Tuesday belying the Philippine government’s claim that investigations on deaths related to the drug war are happening in the country.
“Contrary to the claim of the Philippine government, there is no genuine domestic investigation much less prosecution being conducted into crimes against humanity in the context of the ‘War on Drugs’ (WoD) campaign,” the group said in its letter, sent through its counsel from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers.
“The Deferral request failed to inform the OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) that there is no domestic investigation at all of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was charged by herein Complainants in their Communication of August 2018 as the Respondent who is the most responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. Moreover, there are also no domestic investigations on other persons most responsible for crimes committed in the context of the WoD campaign,” it added.
The Philippine Ambassador to the Netherlands on November 10 wrote to the OTP to halt its probe, claiming that the domestic accountability mechanisms are “functional” and invoked the complementarity principle where the government has the “first responsibility and right to prosecute international crimes.”
The ICC prosecutor responded by temporarily suspending the probe as his office looks into the scope and effect of the deferral request.
The Philippine government had touted its review of 52 drug war cases as among its proof that the country is looking into the deaths.
But for the families of drug war victims, the “token” review is insufficient as it treated the crimes individually and separately and not as part of a widespread systematic attack borne out of a state policy — key criteria for the ICC to step in.
They also argued, 52 cases is a “very small portion” out of the estimated 12,000 to 30,000 deaths or the minimum 5,281 deaths reported by the Philippine National Police during police operations between July 2016 when Duterte took office until February 2019, just before the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC took effect.
Worse, what the DOJ did, according to the group, was only to review documents provided by the PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) and provide a summary.
The Free Legal Assistance Group had earlier questioned if the DOJ’s review can even be called an “investigation” at all since it neither confirmed the contents of the documents nor identify who were responsible for the killings.
In their letter Tuesday, the group of relatives of drug war victims also pointed out that President Rodrigo Duterte himself, whom they accused of spearheading the deadly drug war, is not among those being investigated by Philippine authorities and neither are other high-ranking officials.
Proof that there is no intent to bring those responsible for the killings to justice, the group said, is the unjustified delay in the probes and the ineffective remedies for victims of alleged extrajudicial killings.
The group stressed that killings in the Philippines have taken place since 2016 but the Justice department only announced its review of the drug war killings on June 30, 2020, 3 weeks after a damning report from the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) which detailed the Philippine government’s “heavy-handed” focus on addressing security threats and drugs which supposedly led to serious human rights violations.
Casting doubt on the independence and impartiality of the domestic probes, the families said the President has full control over the investigative and prosecutorial proceedings under the PNP and the DOJ.
Add to this, the issuances by the President and the PNP treating files on drug war killings as “confidential,” denying families of victims access to crucial police records.
In the same letter, the group cited reports by the OHCHR and the Philippine human rights commission about the failure of Philippine domestic mechanisms to ensure accountability and to measure up to international standards.
Among these, the group said, is the A.O. 35 task force convened to solve political killings but which has “patently failed to secure accountability against the perpetrators” and various remedies in court — from the writ of amparo and habeas data to plea bargaining rules that allegedly do not offer relief to victims of the drug war.
“The obstinate refusal of the Philippine government to participate in an investigation by the Court or to allow the OTP to enter its territory to gather evidence demonstrates its unwillingness to genuinely investigate crimes committed in the WoD campaign. It likewise shows an aversion to any impartial and independent probe into these crimes,” it said.
Ultimately, the families of drug war victims said, what the Philippine government wants to do is to evade accountability.
“[I]t is patent that the request for deferral is, stripped of its mirage and rhetoric, merely a premeditated turnaround not made bona fide. It is intended to delay, frustrate, and abort the ICC proceedings in order to shield the most responsible perpetrators from any responsibility, accountability, and liability,” they said.
“The overwhelming support of victims for an investigation shows that it is in the ‘interest of justice’ to continue with the ICC investigation,” they stressed.
In a recent statement, ICC Prosecutor Khan said that information from the Philippines in support of its deferral request must consist of "tangible evidence, of probative value and sufficient degree of specificity" showing that concrete and progressive investigative steps have been or are currently being undertaken to ascertain the responsibility of persons within scope of authorized ICC probe.