No Big Deal: Duterte Disregards International Prosecution Efforts

Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, has officially been accused of mass murder and crimes against humanity and recommended to the International Criminal Court by a Filipino lawyer in a much needed, if rather delayed, attempt to hold him accountable for the executions that have taken place across his country. The accuser, lawyer Jude Sabio, along with Edgar Matobato, who claims to have been a hit-man for Duterte, have asked the Court to confirm the criminal charges and bring Duterte and 11 other senior officials to trial. Duterte himself has been rather blasé about the affair, stating, “let them be… if I go to prison, so be it” and refusing to even bother reading the full complaint filed against him. His attitude is hardly surprising for a man currently in the process of carrying out a brutal drug war, but does bring up an interesting point: should he be worried about being prosecuted?  The ICC process is lengthy, giving the accused plenty of time to go into hiding, and to date the Court has successfully convicted only four people, all of whom, it is worth noting, are from Africa. The Court has been criticized from everything from its excessive budget to its mandate, and may not be the most effective way to change the situation in the Philippines for the better.

Image courtesy of King Rodriguez, © 2016.

Duterte is perhaps best known for his vicious anti-drug campaign, which he launched shortly after taking office in 2016 with the infamous statement that he would be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts—followed by favorably comparing himself to Hitler. Since then, around 7,000 people (possibly more) have been killed by police, and thousands more have been killed in vigilante-type situations outside of police operations.

Duterte has not been shy about his intentions, either: in early April he gave a speech in front of a group of four- to ten-year-old children in which he promised to kill and threatened to throw drug addicts into Manila Bay. Although he does refute the claim that any of the shootings were completed by paid assassins or vigilantes, he recently created an award for officials, government personnel, and private citizens who advance his policies—including the drug crackdown. In general, Duterte has no qualms publicly discussing his actions, having openly stated that “plenty will be killed” and, more recently, proclaiming: “I will kill you. I will really kill you. And that’s why the rapporteur of the UN is here.”

The ongoing drug war is not Duterte’s only foray into the world of extrajudicial killings, either. Duterte was mayor of Davao City while the Davao Death Squad (DDS) roamed the area and executed citizens accused of everything from murder to petty theft. Duterte has officially denied connections to the vigilante killings (though he did admit to personally killing three people), but even at the time the connection between his platform of eliminating crime and the DDS seemed suspicious. Now Matobato, the hit-man, has stated that he was paid by Duterte to assassinate criminals and political opponents while Duterte was mayor of Davao. Another ex-DDS member and policeman, Arturo Lascanas, supported the allegations and added that Duterte ordered the 1993 mosque bombings in Davao. The official complaint to the ICC puts the total number of people killed during Duterte’s three decades in public office at over 8,000.

There is no question that someone responsible for over 8,000 civilian deaths ought to be taken to court, and, since the courts in the Philippines have so far been unable (or unwilling) to prosecute, the next step is naturally the ICC. This may not be an effective option, though. The ICC’s investigations process is notoriously slow, though they did announce a new investigation strategy designed to mitigate some of their earlier failings, and complicated by the fact that the defendants often have plenty of time to flee before they can be arrested and taken to the Hague. Since prosecuting a case without a defendant is hardly a fair trial, a number of the ICC’s cases are on indefinite hold until those charged can be located and brought in to stand trial. Though Duterte has expressed contempt for the ICC and the charges brought against him, he definitely has time, if he so chooses, to escape the Philippines and avoid his trial. That is, if he even needs to escape the country, given that his own government would have to turn him over, since the ICC does not have its own police force.

Duterte, it seems, has every reason to not be worried: the likelihood that his government will surrender him to the ICC seems slim, given that the National Police Director-General and the Justice Secretary both support Duterte and his drug war. He would not be the first war criminal to remain in office, continuing to commit crimes against humanity, despite open warrants for his arrest. If another country were to send in an armed police force or military unit to extract Duterte and send him on his way to the Hague it would be a violation of the Philippine’s national sovereignty, which would not be taken lightly. The most likely scenario, then, is that Duterte joins the ranks of war criminals with open warrants for their arrest and no plans to appear in court.

If Duterte does make it to the Hague, a victory by human rights advocates will be largely symbolic, rather than an effective way of reducing the violence on the ground. True, a man who has perpetuated crimes against humanity will be behind bars—in “the Hague Hilton,” as it was dubbed when reports of surprisingly luxurious conditions emerged in 2011, which is an entirely separate issue. The situation on the ground in the Philippines is quite complicated, and arresting the president will not be enough to end the cycle of poverty and corruption that fuels the drug trade or improve public trust in police and military officials. International efforts could be better spent finding other ways to address these issues, rather than pursuing a costly and often ineffective path for a symbolic victory.

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