Observations of an Expat: The Filipino Monster and Justice

Rodrigo Duterte steps down as President of the Philippines in June 2022. He will be 77 and is planning for a quiet, non-eventful retirement—unlikely.

Nipping at his heels are the prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They want Duterte to stand trial for the thousands of extra-judicial killings that took place first in the city of Davao while he was Mayor, and then across the Philippines during his presidential tenure. However, the ICC faces formidable hurdles in placing Duterte in the dock. But first why do they want him there?

Apart from being a foul-mouthed, rude, socially unacceptable, misogynistic, populist politician, Rodrigo Duterte is the man behind thousands of extra-judicial murders. First during his 22 years as Mayor of Davao and then as President. He does not deny the accusation. He revels in it.

When Duterte became Mayor of Davao it was just a few murders away from the title of crime capital of the Philippines. When he left it was the safest city in the country and internationally ranked just behind those peace havens of Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo.

But the means he used to achieve these results—officially licensed death squads—were, to say the least, questionable. The city government took on the role of murdering suspected murderers, drug dealers and other criminals to lower the crime rate. There were no arrests, trials or imprisonments. The officially sanctioned death squads were judge, jury and, of course, executioner. Duterte’s Gordian Knot approach worked. It made him popular with the voters of Davao who returned him to office six times. It also produced a record which appealed to Filipino voters who swept Duterte into the presidential palace in 2016.

Duterte reckoned that what worked in a city can work across the nation. The Death Squads (now known as the Duterte Death Squads or DDS) spread across the Philippines. The exact number of people they killed is open to discussion. The Filipino police talk about roughly 6,000. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights believes the figure to be 8,600. Human Rights Watch talks about a staggering 27,000. Duterte himself has claimed that he personally gunned down three suspected drug dealers.

You would think that such a ruthless regime would be unpopular with the voters. Not in the Philippines. The country has struggled with endemic crime and corruption for decades. Official police figures show that Duterte’s extra-judicial tactics have more than halved the crime rate. The voters are delighted. June 2020 polls—the latest available– showed his approval ratings at 70 percent.

But Duterte’s national popularity has failed to stop the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda from her pursuit of the president for “crimes against humanity, torture, and other inhumane acts committed in connection with the president’s war on drugs.” Gambian-born Bensouda started her investigation in February 2018. One month later Duterte announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ICC, although the withdrawal did not officially take effect until a year later.

This will be one of the first hurdles that the court will have to overcome in its efforts to bring Duterte to justice. The president’s office argues that the court no longer has the right to investigate or prosecute alleged crimes of its citizens. The ICC disagrees, it says its mandate still runs in the case because the crimes being investigated started in 2011—nine years before the Philippines official departure from its jursidction. In this position the ICC has the support of a recent ruling of the Filipino Supreme Court.

But for any ICC investigation to be successful it needs cooperation from government. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has said that no government official will cooperate in any way whatsoever with the ICC. Duterte has refused to speak with them.

Of course, if there is a different administration in Manila after June 2022, that could change. But at the moment it looks as if Duterte’s most likely successor is his daughter.

There is also the minor problem that Fatou Bensouda is about to retire as chief prosecutor. That is why she has given a deadline of 13 August for families affected by Duterte’s death squads to supply evidence to the prosecutor’s office. Bensouda has been a combined Rottweiler and bloodhound in setting up and pursuing the investigations against Duterte and will be missed. Her replacement—British barrister Karim Khan—appears keen to pick up the cudgels.

It is clear that Duterte will not be dragged off to The Hague in chains the moment he leaves the presidential palace in June next year. The ICC Prosecutor’s office believes it has all the evidence it needs to mount a case, but Duterte—and possibly the succeeding Filipino Administration—will use every legal trick available to block the court and keep him in the country.

ICC Prosecutors have made it clear, however, that extra-judicial killings are illegal regardless of who sanctioned them and that the person responsible should be brought to justice In order to re-establish the rule of law. So strong is their belief that prosecutors have spoken about a trial taking place even if Duterte dies before he can be dragged to the dock.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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One Comment

  • Robin Bennett 25th Jul '21 - 8:10pm

    Duterte presides with majority support over what is claimed to be the third-largest English-speaking country in the world, so language is no barrier to understanding his rhetoric. In a current TikTok video he says he was taught by his parents to be on the side of fairness, to protect the good, and to “take care of our country” Adopting the whataboutery commonly employed when a human rights record is criticised, he points out that the police shoot blacks in the US, and the US bombed children, old people, and hospitals in Syria and Iraq. And his people are angry at Spain and the US for colonising and “stealing” the resources of the Philippines for hundreds of years. Despite globalisation, this is a good example of how the difference between Western attitudes and those of third-world countries may be widening.

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