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Rights groups fear worst over Philippines' ICC departure

Say work of activists will only get harder following withdrawal from international court

 Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: March 18, 2019 09:25 AM GMT
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Rights groups fear worst over Philippines' ICC departure

Accusations of alleged crimes against humanity were filed by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, in 2017. (Photo supplied)


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The Philippines' withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) has raised fears among activist groups of a worsening human rights situation amid an anti-narcotics war they say has killed more than 20,000 people in three years.

The Commission on Human Rights, an independent government body, called the withdrawal a "reversal of the country’s commitment to international treaty obligations and a step back from the gains the Philippines has achieved in promoting justice and human rights."

In March last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced he was tearing up the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC, after the Dutch-based tribunal announced it would initiate a preliminary crimes against humanity probe into Duterte's "war on drugs."

The ICC, however, announced that the Philippines' withdrawal would not affect its preliminary examination, which covers incidents that took place since the start of the ant-narcotics campaign on July 1, 2016 and while the country remained a state party to the Rome Statute.

The Philippines ratified the statute on Aug. 30, 2011.

The Philippines' withdrawal from the ICC took effect on March 17, a year after the government transmitted a notice of withdrawal to the office of the U.N. secretary-general in New York.

It is the second country to leave the court after Burundi withdrew in 2017.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the withdrawal poses a challenge to human rights activist to work harder in monitoring human rights abuses.

The prelate said he believes the court despite the withdrawal will still pursue the cases filed against Duterte.

The ICC is currently evaluating 52 cases that alleged the Philippine president committed crimes against humanity."

Human rights group Karapatan warned the statute withdrawal "may signal another wave of intensified attacks against human rights defenders."

The group’s deputy secretary-general, Roneo Clamor, said that even when being part of the ICC, activists and rights advocates who sought to expose state-perpetrated violations were increasingly being threatened and killed.

"With a vindictive government, all should be wary of Duterte’s acts of severe reprisals," said Clamor.

On March 18, the presidential palace downplayed the Philippines' withdrawal from the ICC, saying, "the sky has not fallen and the sun still rises in the east."

Lawyer Salvador Panelo, the president's spokesman, said the criticisms of the withdrawal raised by human rights groups and Duterte critics were "misleading and baseless."

He challenged critics to instead file cases in court "to test the validity of their assertions."

"There is no culture of impunity under this administration," said Panelo, adding that the criminal justice system continues to be "operational and strictly compliant with the constitutional requirement of due process."

He said reported "extrajudicial killings" linked to Duterte's "war on drugs" were not state-sponsored.

In an earlier statement, the ICC said dumping the Rome Statute is a sovereign decision that has "no impact on ongoing proceedings or any matter that was already under consideration by the court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective."

The ICC, established in 2002, is an intergovernmental organization and international tribunal that sits in The Hague in the Netherlands. It has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.

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