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The International Criminal Court has authorized a formal investigation into the controversial Philippine drug war that has sparked international outrage.
According to the official tally, at least 6,000 Filipinos, mostly drug traffickers and poor drug addicts, have been killed in drug police operations. But rights groups estimate the number of victims could be four times higher.
The ICC decision on Wednesday represents a dramatic turning point for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the architect of the bloody crackdown. Investigators will focus on the period from 2016, when he took office, to March 2019, after which the Philippines was deemed to have withdrawn from the ICC in an attempt to evade jurisdiction.
Prosecutors will also examine Duterte’s drug campaign as mayor of Davao City between 2011 and 2016.
Diane Orentlicher, professor of international law at the American University, says the extension of the duration of the investigation establishes that the national war on drugs was the continuation of the aggressive approach deployed for the first time in Davao City.
Duterte, 76, has looked down on the court’s prosecution team from the time she began considering a possible investigation.
But on Wednesday, the Pre-Trial Chamber said based on what emerged, the Philippines’ drug campaign “cannot be considered a legitimate law enforcement operation” nor the killings “mere excesses in a otherwise legitimate operation “. On the contrary, he said they indicated a “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population”.
Duterte accuses the ICC of interfering in the internal affairs of the Philippines and he has sworn to bar investigators from entering the country.
However, forensic observers say it is not unusual for ICC justice to take years. And Duterte’s term expires in June 2022, in less than nine months. Analysts say he is now focused on finding a successor who could potentially protect him from lawsuits.