The International Criminal Court (ICC) has approved a formal investigation into Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”, which has left thousands of people dead.
Judges at the Hague-based tribunal said in a statement on Wednesday there was a “reasonable basis” to believe that the crime against humanity of murder had been committed in the crackdown.
They added the “so-called ‘war on drugs’ campaign cannot be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation, and the killings neither as legitimate nor as mere excesses in an otherwise legitimate operation”.
Evidence suggested that a “widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy”
Former ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had asked judges in June to authorise the full-blown probe into allegations that police unlawfully killed up to tens of thousands of civilians. The case will now be taken up by her successor, Karim Khan, who took over shortly afterwards.
At least 6,181 people have been killed in more than 200,000 anti-drug operations conducted since the first day of Duterte’s presidency on June 30, 2016, according to the latest official data released by the Philippines in July this year.
ICC prosecutors in court papers estimate the figure to be between 12,000 to 30,000 slain victims. Among those killed were at least 73 children, with the youngest just five months old, according to a UN investigation.
In December 2016, it was reported in the media that more than 6,000 deaths in the drug war. It questioned the inconsistency of the government’s record-keeping system and the possible “manipulation” of data.
Rights groups say the number of deaths could be at least 27,000, including those killed by “unknown” gunmen, some of whom turned out to be police officers.
The drugs crackdown is Duterte’s signature policy initiative and he defends it fiercely, especially from critics such as Western leaders and institutions which he says do not care about his country.
Duterte was elected in May 2016 on a campaign promise to get rid of the Philippines’s drug problem. After taking office, he immediately launched his deadly campaign described by the country’s Catholic leaders as a “reign of terror”.
Prosecutors said that the Philippines has not denied people were killed during police operations but “have instead consistently contended that these deaths resulted from officers acting in self-defence”.