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Filipino relatives of victims of drug-related killings hold pictures as they attend a Manila church mass in March 2019 in support of a complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte filed at the International Criminal Court. Photo: EPA-EFE

Duterte’s war on drugs: global human rights coalition to aid International Criminal Court in Philippines inquiry

  • Investigate PH, comprised of foreign-based church groups, lawyers and political leaders, will gather evidence of the president’s misdeeds for the ICC
  • Group will also probe “red-tagging” of student activists, human rights advocates, lawyers, teachers and religious leaders
Human rights
Foreign-based church groups, lawyers and political leaders have formed the human rights coalition Investigate PH to gather evidence on suspected crimes against humanity related to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” and to lobby the United Nations and other international bodies to hold him accountable.
The group intends to submit its findings to the International Criminal Court so Duterte and other Philippine officials involved in alleged extrajudicial killings can be prosecuted.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, last week said there was a “reasonable basis to believe” that Duterte was responsible for crimes against humanity. The ICC said it would decide by the first half of next year whether to open an investigation, which could potentially lead to charges and a trial of Duterte and other Philippine officials in The Hague, Netherlands.

Duterte’s drug war: ICC sees ‘basis’ for crime against humanity probe

While under Philippine law Duterte enjoys immunity from any suit filed in the country, he would have no such immunity from the ICC.

Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the Germany-based World Communion of Reformed Churches, told This Week in Asia in a phone interview that the impetus to form the coalition came “from all these groups that have traditionally been involved in defending human rights and the struggle for justice”, adding that the network was already in place.

He said the World Communion of Reformed Churches alone represented 233 religious denominations in over 110 countries, with about 100 million members. “We mobilise around the defence and protection of human rights and all those we believe for whom justice has been denied as part of our religious vocation,” he said.

Ferguson stressed that the coalition was not “singling out” the Philippines, but said the country was “distinguishing itself as a particularly egregious example of the violation of human rights and impunity”.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he could be held responsible for the thousands of killings under his anti-drugs crackdown but is not willing to face charges of crimes against humanity. Photo: AP

Investigate PH will not limit itself to investigating human rights abuses related to Duterte’s war on drugs, but has expanded its scope to include the government’s “red-tagging” of student activists, human rights advocates, lawyers, teachers and religious leaders by linking them to the New People’s Army, an armed communist rebel group.

Several hundred people in the Philippines have ended up dead after being similarly red-tagged by the government, including medical doctor Mary Rose Sancelan and her physician husband, Edwin. Both were shot dead last week.


Family mourns mother and son shot at point-blank range by Philippine policeman over noise dispute

Family mourns mother and son shot at point-blank range by Philippine policeman over noise dispute

The lead group behind Investigate PH is the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, whose local partners include two red-tagged organisations – the National Union of People’s Lawyers and Karapatan (Justice) – as well as Rise Up for Life and for Rights, which was started by the United Methodist Church in Manila to help families of drug-related killings seek justice.

Peter Murphy, the global council chair of the International Coalition for Human Rights, said during an online press briefing by Investigate PH last week that they intended to lobby the UN Human Rights Council this February to act on the report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet Jeria on the Philippine situation.

In UN speech, Philippines’ Duterte defends drug war, South China Sea claims

In addition, Murphy said Investigate PH would submit a report on its findings to the Enhanced Interactive Dialogues and General Debates of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2021 as well as to the International Criminal Court in June or July.

Former Australian senator Lee Rhiannon, who is also part of Investigate PH, emphasised during the webinar that the report would be based on personal testimonies the group obtained in the Philippines in December 2019. She disclosed that the 10-person delegation had met with “workers, indigenous peoples, [and] families of those who have lost loved ones” under the Duterte regime.

“I found it traumatic hearing about the gross abuses and killings,” she said about the interviews with victims.

“We are preparing a submission on these crimes to go to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,” Rhiannon said, because “what is happening in the Philippines amounts to crimes against humanity. These crimes must end”.

The United Methodist Church in the US also announced last week that it was part of Investigate PH.


Duterte tells Philippines he asked China for coronavirus vaccine, diplomacy in maritime dispute

Duterte tells Philippines he asked China for coronavirus vaccine, diplomacy in maritime dispute

Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe, the general secretary of the church’s General Board of Church and Society, called on the Duterte government “to stop immediately all illegal arrests and prolonged detention and to stop the killings, disappearances, torture, forced displacement and all other forms of human rights violations”.

Her call was echoed by Reverend Michael Blair, general secretary of the United Church of Canada, which is also part of Investigate PH. “We think it is very critical for us to participate in this process of not only amplifying the voice of Filipinos from their experience, their lack of their rights to challenge the systems that are oppressive to them, [but also] to challenge the issues of land rights.”

He said his church “has had a long history working with partners in the Philippines, especially partners in the faith sector. And we have heard over and over and over again of the abuse of human rights and the issues of red-tagging of faith leaders.

“So we would like to contribute in calling the UN to account for proper investigation of the issues facing the people of the Philippines,” Blair added.

We have heard over and over and over again of the abuse of human rights and the issues of red-tagging of faith leaders
Reverend Michael Blair, United Church of Canada

The Philippine government has historically been highly critical of the involvement of foreigners in Philippine human rights issues, viewing it as political meddling in local law enforcement matters.

Last September, presidential spokesman Harry Roque lashed out at Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament who had urged the European Commission to revoke Manila’s duty-free export privilege due to human rights violations. Roque had told CNN Philippines at that time that “no one can question our resolve to protect our people from the scourge of illegal drugs and terrorism” and that “we are no longer slaves of any foreign country”.

Last week, Neumann announced that while she was not a member of Investigate PH, she was personally endorsing it because “the human rights situation in the Philippines is very worrying and the president of this beautiful country is making things even worse”.

In contrast to Roque, his former law partner Gilbert Andres said he welcomed such initiatives by foreign groups. “The more evidence [gathered], the better,” Andres told This Week in Asia. Andres works for the Manila-based NGO CenterLaw, which assists those filing complaints before the International Criminal Court.

Philippines’ war on drugs included ‘systematic extrajudicial killings’, UN says

Ironically, CenterLaw’s co-founder is Roque, who is an expert on international law and has been advising Duterte on his legal moves regarding the ICC case against him.

When Bensouda, the chief ICC prosecutor, announced last week that she would continue investigating complaints against Duterte lodged with her office, Roque accused her of politicking and claimed that the 2018 withdrawal by the Philippines from the Rome Statute – which created the ICC – meant the Philippines could no longer be investigated.

However, Bensouda’s 2020 report expressly stated: “The Court retains jurisdiction over alleged crimes that have occurred on the territory of the Philippines during the period when it was a State Party to the Statute, namely from 1 November 2011 up to and including 16 March 2019.”

New York-based lawyer Jean Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, vowed that her group would help “bring these violations to light” internationally.

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Photo: AFP

This coming together of various groups to fight for a common cause is reminiscent of what took place during the last years of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in 1985 to 1986.

At that time, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches – the umbrella group to which the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the United Methodist Church belonged – released a damning report based on testimonies of Marcos’ torture victims and families of the disappeared.

The World Council concluded that the “shocking” record showed “the pain, agony and the humiliation in the words of the victims and their dear ones [and] the depths of degradation to which the regime has fallen reflect its desperation”. Marcos fled the country soon thereafter.