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Moving closer to justice

A pre-trial chamber has 120 days to act on the request of Fatou Bensouda for judicial authorization to investigate what she believes are crimes against humanity committed in connection with the Duterte administration’s war on drugs. The probe will also cover killings attributed to alleged death squads in Davao City from 2011 to 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte was mayor.

Bensouda made the request in her final week as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Those supporting the probe have expressed confidence that her successor, Karim Khan, will not withdraw the request, which Malacañang has described as an insult to the Philippine government and a disincentive to countries still considering accession to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC.

The Duterte administration initiated the country’s withdrawal from the Rome Statue in 2018, shortly after Bensouda launched a preliminary examination of the brutal war on drugs. The withdrawal became final a year later, but Bensouda insists that the ICC has jurisdiction over crimes alleged to have been perpetrated in the Philippines during the period that it was a state party to the Rome Statute, from November 2011 to March 2019.

Malacañang has denied that there is a state policy for security forces and vigilantes to summarily execute drug suspects. Bensouda observed: “State officials at the highest levels of government also spoke publicly and repeatedly in support of extrajudicial killings, and created a culture of impunity for those who committed them.”

The government has said it will not cooperate in any ICC probe. Legal experts say that the ICC can still proceed with a formal investigation, although the lack of cooperation will be a major hindrance.

Relatives of those who were killed in the drug war, particularly those who insist that the fatalities were never involved in the illegal drug trade, are hoping that they are one step closer to justice. As even Bensouda herself has acknowledged, however, this is going to be a tortuous process. There are questions on how high up accountability for the killings can go.

What her move can do is put the brakes on further drug-related killings, and speed up the investigation, prosecution and conviction by Philippine authorities of those behind horrific abuses in the campaign against illegal drugs. It should also lead to a rethinking of the strategy in fighting the drug scourge, which continues to plague the country despite the thousands of deaths.

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