The thousands of wives widowed and the children orphaned by the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) the Duterte police unleashed in the course of the regime’s war on the poor in the guise of a “war on drugs” have long awaited the decision of International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to request the ICC’s Pretrial Chamber (PTC) to authorize her “to proceed with an investigation” into the killings. But it is only one more stage in a process that could take years to complete. Bensouda’s preliminary investigation into “the [human rights] situation in the Philippines” itself took more than two years to conclude.

Nothing can compensate for the loss of a husband, a father, and in some instances even a wife, a mother and a child — or for that matter, for the years of want and deprivation inflicted by the sudden demise of a family breadwinner. Mostly unremarked except in studies by such institutions as the University of the Philippines is the humanitarian crisis that afflicts those left behind by the heads of families who, alleged to be either drug addicts or drug pushers, were systematically gunned down on the strength of what the police understood to be the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte to “kill, kill, kill.”

Some of the victims’ families have nevertheless expressed the hope that justice may eventually be served their departed ones, many of whom were killed in their homes, while asleep, or begging for their lives to be spared. In at least one case, a 17- year-old boy was made to run after being beaten by the police and was then shot to death.

Coming as the Bensouda decision did on practically the eve of the 2022 elections, neither the Duterte regime nor the pro-democracy opposition groups can afford to ignore its possible impact on the results of that exercise. Hence the call from the latter for the regime to cooperate with the ICC if it indeed has nothing to hide, and Mr. Duterte and company are not guilty of crimes against humanity.

For the Duterte camp, however, winning next year’s elections has become even more urgent. It would give them at least six more years in power, during which they could ride out whatever will be the results of the ICC investigation and their possible prosecution. Mr. Duterte and his police and other enforcers could then, they hope, live their remaining years uncaged rather than behind bars.

As expected, however, the Duterte regime has belittled the Bensouda announcement as of no particular concern, declared that it will not cooperate with any PTC investigation, and even claimed that the preliminary investigation was based on hearsay. Reiterating his earlier argument two years ago, Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson, who brought the libel conviction of broadcaster Alex Adonis to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2011 on the justification that the justice system is broken, claimed that no international body has to intervene in the Philippines because that system is working.

As if to prove that rather specious claim true, in anticipation of the Bensouda announcement, and despite the Palace declaration of non-cooperation, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Guillermo Eleazar had earlier announced that the PNP would open “drug war” files to the scrutiny of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) ongoing investigation. But because of Palace “concerns,” the PNP has limited what it will make available to the DOJ only 61 case records in which the PNP itself found some police officers liable for prosecution.

Sixty-one is a mere drop in the bucket of thousands of EJK cases (some estimates put the number at over 30,000), but their being made available at all suggests that, despite the regime’s bombast, it cannot entirely ignore the ICC decision and the growing pressure from international human rights and libertarian groups. Those responsible must surely be, at the very least, somewhat concerned that sooner or later they will be held to account for their role in the killings for which they could be indicted and tried for crimes against humanity.

It is crucial that that happens, though neither for revenge nor for the exquisite pleasure of seeing some of the most brazenly inhuman creatures to ever walk the corridors of power in this country get their comeuppance. It is for the sake of ending the use of deadly force as the “solution” to every problem or issue that has not only taken deep roots in Philippine officialdom over the last five years. As the regime trolls and its media hirelings applaud its use against those who dare disapprove of what government is doing, it has also further enshrined violence in Philippine society as a legitimate option in addressing such minor squabbles as domestic spats and traffic disputes.

The use of unaccountable State violence has always been at issue in these isles of fear. But never has it been as widespread and as openly sanctioned than today. During past administrations except that of Ferdinand Marcos’, there was at least enough lip service paid to respect for human rights and the rule of law for the police and military to think twice before killing a crime suspect — or a political activist, a human rights defender, or regime critic. Although abuses did happen even then, they were often condemned even by government spokespersons. No President ever disparaged human rights and its defenders either.

Unlike those times, the past five years have spread a more lethal contagion than COVID-19: the unbridled and officially-sanctioned police and military violence that is poisoning daily life itself. The killings during police anti-drug operations have waned, though still continuing. But the demonstration effect of Mr. Duterte’s assuring the police of impunity and their quite literally getting away with murder have implanted in the pygmy brains of their dull-witted members the conviction that they can escape prosecution even if they kill for the flimsiest of reasons.

Only two weeks ago a police sergeant shot and killed a woman he was having an argument with, justifying it later by saying she had disrespected him. Another policeman last December also killed a woman and her son during a verbal altercation for the same reason. Both apparently think themselves the masters rather than the servants of the people and are prepared to kill anyone who doesn’t acknowledge it.

Another policeman also killed an autistic 18-year old boy during a raid on a cockfighting venue. Seven police officers are the suspects in the March 8 ambush and killing of Calbayog City Mayor Ronaldo Aquino. Some have been implicated in the killing of other local officials.

Subjecting policemen to psychological tests or making them wear body cameras as PNP Chief Eleazar has proposed will not be enough to end this orgy of murder and mayhem. What will stop the abuses is the police’s being made to understand that they are not above the law and that they will be penalized for every wrongdoing they commit.

That can happen only if those responsible for encouraging the killings and abetting police impunity are themselves held accountable; and it is through the ICC rather than the broken justice system that that hope could be realized. Only then can the semblance of civilized behavior in government and the rest of Philippine society to which past administrations have claimed allegiance be somewhat restored.

Things have so regressed from bad to worse since 2016 that only such modest expectations of State and society seem likely of realization. But the next few months and the years after may surprise us yet, thanks to the ICC.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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