Rodrigo Duterte Image Credit: Reuters

MANILA: The Philippines said on Thursday its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be “the beginning of the end” for the institution, as more countries would follow suit and non-members would be discouraged from joining.

The presidential palace on Thursday confirmed a decision by President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“The President’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute was a result of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s violation of the ‘principle of complementarity,’” Duterte’s spokesman, Secretary Harry Roque said in a press briefing at the presidential palace on Thursday.

The announcement to withdraw comes five weeks after a court prosecutor said a preliminary examination had been opened into President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, to look into whether crimes against humanity had been committed.

But according to Roque, that examination “violates the very fundamental basis by which we gave our consent to be bound by the ICC”. ICC prosecutors have yet to comment on the announcement.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Duterte said UN special rapporteurs were trying to “paint me as a ruthless and heartless violator of human rights”, and the ICC had acted prematurely and created the impression he would be charged with serious crimes.

Roque said Duterte believes there is a “conspiracy” among lobby groups and the United Nations, to which he said the ICC is perceived to be allied, and wants to indict him “in the court of public opinion”.

“The ICC has lost a strong ally in Asia,” Roque told a media briefing.

“No new countries will join because we are recognised as probably the number one defender of human rights and democracy in the world,” added Roque, a lawyer and prominent advocate for the Philippines joining the ICC in 2011.

Duterte’s opponents wasted no time in accusing him of flip-flopping, pointing out that he had repeatedly dared the ICC to indict him and said he would “rot in jail” to defend a war on drugs during which police have killed thousands of people.

They said Duterte’s decision was an admission of guilt and a sign that he was panicking.

Human rights and jurist groups condemned him for what they saw as an attempt to evade justice and accountability, and said a withdrawal was pointless, because jurisdiction applied retroactively, for the period of membership.

In an interview with ANC news channel early on Thursday, Roque warned of an “avalanche of other states leaving”.

“This is the beginning of the end of the court,” he said, adding that the ICC would have no jurisdiction over the Philippines, and it was unlikely Duterte would ever be handed over to the court.

Presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo said Duterte felt the ICC had become “a tool of oppression, a tool of harassment”.

Jude Sabio, the lawyer who filed the ICC complaint last year, told ANC that the issue of an arrest warrant for the president would be a “big triumph of justice”.

The Rome Statute is the treaty that created the ICC and there is a question on whether the ICC can prosecute Duterte, who is hugely popular among Filipinos, on perceived crimes committed against his own people.

Roque said that the principle of complementarity states that the “ICC could only prosecute crimes when the State Parties’ local courts are unable or unwilling to do so.”

This is not the case in the Philippines, he said because there are local courts that are willing to take on the cases, Roque stressed.

It had been perceived that the decision by Duterte to withdraw from the ICC was aimed at avoiding scrutiny in the killings tied to the government’s bloody campaign versus drugs.

“The ICC is not a court of first instance. It is made up of countries, including the Philippines, to be a court of last resort. The ICC could only move in such a manner if the courts in that country would not persecute the cases,” he said.

“I hasten to add that in the Philippines, not only do we have a functioning judiciary, and I think no one can dispute that. We also have a domestic statute, which mirrors the crimes cognisable by the International Criminal Court,” he added.

Roque said that the executive secretary has already received an instruction from the president for the country to withdraw from the ICC.

“The executive secretary will implement immediately the President’s directive through proper diplomatic procedure in coordination with the Department of Foreign Affairs,” Roque said.

In the complaint filed by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio against Duterte last year, he said that thousands of people have been killed in the Philippines due to their alleged involvement in illegal drug use or dealing. “While some of such killings have reportedly occurred in the context of clashes between or within gangs, it is alleged that many of the reported incidents involved extrajudicial killings in the course of police anti-drug operations,” it was said.

The government had said that it will investigate the killings.

The Philippines deposited its instrument of ratification of the Rome Statute on August 30, 2011.

“The ICC may therefore exercise its jurisdiction over Rome Statute crimes committed on the territory of the Philippines or by its nationals from November 1, 2011 onwards,” the world body said.