It is too early to rejoice.

The process is long and tedious and it may take years before Rodrigo Duterte and his officials, including the police, face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

By the time the ICC decides to indict Duterte for crimes against humanity for thousands of street-level drug peddlers and users killed in his brutal and bloody War on Drugs, he may no longer be in power. He could also be gone for good.

But the good news from The Hague is that the investigation into the mass killings in the Philippines from the time Duterte assumed office until March 2019 is moving, giving a ray of hope to families of victims of the drug war.

On Monday, the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, requested a formal inquiry into the situation in the Philippines after preliminary examination of the human rights situation in the country, finding that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that the Crime Against Humanity of Murder was committed.”

This is just the first step to hold Duterte accountable for the mass murders in his crusade to end the drug menace in the country.

The ICC has four months to decide if Bensouda’s request will be granted and the actual investigation may take years.

The cooperation of the Philippine government is necessary, but not required if it refuses to take part in the process.

Manila withdrew from the Rome Statute in 2019, thus the investigation will only cover the years when Duterte was in power as president from 2016 to 2019, when the country was still a member of the ICC.

Bensouda has requested to expand the investigation to cover the years 2011 to 2016, before Duterte was elected president and when he was mayor in Davao City, because the pattern of killings there is similar to those that happened under his presidency.

Besides, there are two witnesses — Edgar Matobato and Arthur Lascanas — who had directly linked Duterte to the killings in Davao City.

Matobato is a self-confessed hitman and a member of the so-called “Davao Death Squad” who got involved in some killings of petty criminals in the southern City.

Lascanas, on the other hand, is an ex-police officer who was also involved in the killings and was said to be close to the former mayor.

Matobato and Lascanas’ testimonies will further strengthen the case against Duterte because the killings in Davao City, which he himself ordered, will establish a pattern in the War on Drugs campaign carried out nationwide.

It would be a stretch to prove Duterte’s role when an ordinary police officer carries out an extrajudicial killing (EJK) based only on the Philippine National Police’s documents on the “Oplan Double Barrel.”

But the clear pattern of killings based on the testimonies of Matobato and Lascanas will show Duterte’s hand in the crimes.

Human rights lawyers also said the statements uttered by the president to encourage the killings and an assurance to protect the state agents from prosecution are enough evidence to hold Duterte accountable.

Bensouda said about 1,000 people were killed in Duterte’s rampage in Davao City before he was elected president. A Redemptorist priest, Fr. Amado Picardal, documented more than 1,400 victims of the reign of terror of the “Davao Death Squad” for two decades.

From July 2016 until March 2019, Bensouda said more than 5,000 people were killed in the War of Drugs campaign based on the official police report.

But the Gambian lawyer estimated the victims, including those summarily executed by “vigilantes,” could run from 12,000 to 30,000 people.

The figure is similar to estimates made by the international and local human rights groups during the same period. The drug-related killings continued unabated after the Philippines withdrew from the ICC, and intensified during the coronavirus pandemic when people were imprisoned at home by the lockdowns.

The official police figure on the death toll has risen to about 7,000 people and the unofficial data could be much higher as reporting has become difficult.

The extrajudicial killings have been expanded to include activists, lawyers, and other people seen as critics and political foes of the Duterte administration.

But these killings will not be investigated as most of them happened after the Philippines withdrew from the ICC in March 2019.

Bensouda, in her report, was confident the ICC would grant her request to proceed with formal investigation, but this will fall on the shoulders of her successor, British lawyer Karim Khan, who took over on June 16. He will serve as chief prosecutor for nine years.

Her report concluded there was basis for investigation for a crime against humanity committed in the Philippines in relation to the drug war.

The extrajudicial killings were “committed pursuant to an official state policy of the Philippine government.”

“Police and other government officials planned, ordered, and sometimes directly perpetrated extrajudicial killings,” Bensouda said.

The “state actors,” who allegedly committed the killings in Davao starting in 1988 and through 2016, were strikingly similar to those involved in the nationwide operations under the drug war.

Even if the Philippines had turned its back on the Rome Statute, the ICC still has jurisdiction over the country as a state party until March 2019.



Duterte was not singled out as the only official to face formal investigation. Also included are his two national police chiefs — Ronald dela Rosa who was elected in the Senate in 2019 and Oscar Albayalde.

Regional, provincial, city and municipal police chiefs are also liable. Appointed and elected officials from the Cabinet down to local government units who supported the Duterte drug war policy could be held accountable.

But this is not the time to celebrate. There’s no guarantee the request will be granted. It will need painstaking inquiry and there are huge obstacles ahead.

For instance, the Philippine National Police was willing to share only 52 case files of drug war killings with the justice department, which promised the United Nations Human Rights Council to review and prosecute law enforcers who were behind the killings.

Of course, the DOJ action was all for a show to prevent the ICC from investigating the killings, and to demonstrate to the world that the legal mechanisms in the country were working.

Justice remains elusive for families of the victims of drug war killings. But the process is moving. The train has left the station. Let’s hope it does not get derailed and reaches its destination. Duterte may not be able to face the consequences of his actions in his lifetime, but there’s a time of reckoning even in the afterlife.


The Press Room

Imbestigasyon ng International Criminal Court sa War on Drugs ni Duterte 

Naging matunog sa balita nitong mga nakaraang araw ang ICC at ang plano nitong imbestigahan ang mga umanong “crimes against humanity” na naganap dito sa Pilipinas sa kasagsagan ng war on drugs ni Pangulong Duterte. Pero ano nga ba ang ibig-sabihin nito?