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Will Duterte face international trial for blood on his hands?

By Jinky J. Jorgio

Manila— The Philippine government continues to be hounded by its notoriety for human rights violations, which date back to the tyrannical regime of the late dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., whose son and namesake now sits as the country’s 17th president.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.— whose successful run for the presidency was resented by human rights victims and advocates— is now faced with the challenge of redeeming his family’s disgraced name and addressing the atrocities committed by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, whose daughter Sarah Duterte is now the country’s vice president.

The Philippine government’s infamy reached a new height during Rodrigo Duterte’s homicidal war on drugs. But drug dealers and users were not the only ones who suffered Duterte’s wrath.

Reports from the Human Rights Watch, which are to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, raised the alarm on the Philippine judicial system’s connivance with the Duterte administration’s suppression of justice.

Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch Asia, said the report illustrates the dire human rights situation in the Philippines.

From July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2022, the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency killed 6,252 individuals during the anti-drug operations. The death toll does not include those killed by unidentified gunmen, who were believed to have acted in tandem with the local police and officials. Human rights monitors said they had credible evidence supporting this charge.


In a separate report to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner calculated that the war-on-drugs death toll was 8,663. Domestic human rights groups, including the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, speculated that the actual number of drug-war killings is possibly triple the figure cited in the report.

The Human Rights Watch recommended that Marcos Jr. end the drug war, “in unequivocal terms.” The group urged the president to prioritize accountability for unlawful killings and other abuses by forming a truth commission that will gather testimony from witnesses, victims and their families, and offer reparations.

The government should assist the International Criminal Court in its investigation of extrajudicial killings, the group said.

However, Menardo Guevarra, the Philippines’ newly appointed solicitor general, has rejected the ICC’s request for a joint investigation into the killings, saying the country’s legal system was working and that the Philippines is no longer a member of the international tribunal.

In 2018, Duterte withdrew the Philippines’ ratification of a treaty that created the ICC, where he was facing a possible complaint over his bloodthirsty anti-drug crackdown.

Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines, lamented the government’s refusal to cooperate with the ICC, disagreeing with Guevarra’s claim that the government’s judicial system was in place. “If our existing judicial system is in place, then ICC and other international organizations and bodies would not find any interest in the situation of the country,” said Simbulan, who also sits as the vice chairman of the UP Center for People’s Empowerment and Governance.

Drug dealers and users were not the only recipients of Duterte’s wrath. The former president also wielded his iron fist against the media and other critics, including leftist activists and human rights defenders. Even after he left office, “red-tagging” remained a national pastime, targeting the followers of former vice president, Leonora Robredo, who lost the presidential bid, along with journalists, lawyers, non-governmental organizations, nuns and priests, and bookshop owners

The Human Rights Watch recommended that the Philippine government thoroughly investigate the attacks and killings of activists and bring the perpetrators to justice. The group sought an end to “red-tagging,” which refers to the malicious blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting administration. The group also called for an end to using the threats of libel lawsuits and misusing the anti-terrorism law to harass activists and human rights defenders.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, CEO of the news website Rappler, was convicted of cyber-libel. She also faces several other legal cases filed by the Duterte government that appeared intent on shutting down the news outlet.

The country’s largest television network, ABS-CBN, was shut down in July 2021 after the Philippine Congress, then controlled by Duterte’s allies, voted against extending its franchise.

Sen. Leila De Lima, a staunch critic of the former president, is still in jail since her arrest on trumped-up drug charges in 2017. She was accused of receiving money from drug lords while serving as the justice secretary.

Two of De Lima’s accusers have since recanted their statements, saying they gave false testimony due to “pressure, coercion, intimidation and serious threats to their family members.” Rafael Ragos, former corrections officer, withdrew

his earlier testimony that he had delivered drug money to De Lima. Self-confessed “drug lord” Kerwin Espinosa also withdrew his testimony made before senators in November 2016 implicating De Lima in illegal drug operations.

Human rights groups have recommended that the government drop all charges against De Lima and immediately release her from detention.

Simbulan said it was obvious that De Lima was a victim of political harassment and persecution.

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