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Can the Philippines overcome the principle of complementarity?

March 8, 2018 Jenny Domino

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently announcedher plans to conduct
a preliminary examination on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has
allegedly resulted in thousands of extrajudicial executions of civilians. This process requires the
Prosecutor to assess whether national proceedings exist with respect to potential cases that the
Prosecutor may investigate after conducting the preliminary examination. Notably, a preliminary
examination analyzes the situation as a whole and does not look into specific incidents and
individuals that may be charged yet.

Duterte’s supporters argue that the Philippines has existing legislation and a functioning judicial
system sufficient to satisfy complementarity. They rely on Republic Act 9851 (also
titled the Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide, and Other
Crimes Against Humanity) (RA 9851), to argue that the Philippines has an accountability
mechanism which should suffice to bar ICC intervention. On the other hand, critics point to the
presidential immunity provision in RA 9851 to argue that the ICC is not barred.

Both arguments are misplaced. The fact that a statutory mechanism exists is not the same as
having a mechanism that actually works, which is what the principle of complementarity aims to
achieve. Similarly, exploring the implications of presidential immunity presupposes that
investigations that would satisfy complementarity are, in fact, already taking place. Both
arguments do not answer the primordial question – are there, in fact, investigations being
undertaken that would satisfy complementarity?

An absence of any investigation is enough reason for the ICC to step in. The question of genuine
unwillingness will not arise if no investigations at all are being conducted in the first place.
However, not all kinds of investigations are sufficient. This presupposes another question –
what kind of investigation must take place, and against whom?

In its Policy Paper on Preliminary Examinations, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor requires national
proceedings to be brought against the persons most responsible for the criminal acts that are
being examined by it for potential cases. At present, however, no investigation, much less
prosecution, has been conducted on any high-ranking official most responsible for planning and
implementing Operation Tokhang, the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) official campaign
through which the extrajudicial killings were allegedly committed.

Complementarity Permutations

The protective writs petitioned before the Philippine Supreme Court cannot be interpreted as
national proceedings that can bar an ICC investigation. These protective writs are remedial
measures for the families of the victims killed by Operation Tokhang, not efforts to hold high-
ranking officials who planned and implemented Operation Tokhang criminally liable. The
pending complaints filedby the drug war victims’ family members against police officers with the
Office of the Ombudsman do not satisfy complementarity for the same reasons. The defendants
here are low-ranking officers of the Manila Police District, not senior officials of the PNP. The
investigative mandate of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) may also not suffice. At best,
the CHR can only recommend the filing of charges either to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or
the Ombudsman; it has no prosecutorial power itself. Prosecutors are free to disregard CHR
recommendations and make separate findings of their own.

Impeachment has been suggested to bar ICC intervention. Apart from the political impossibility of
this happening at the moment, there are good reasons to believe that the process of impeachment
is not enough to satisfy complementarity. The present 1987 Philippine Constitution allows for
the removal of the President for culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and
corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust. Although it may be argued that the drug-
related extrajudicial killings constitute a violation of numerous rights provisions of the Constitution
that could fall under “culpable violation of the Constitution”, impeachment only carries a political
consequence and no criminal liability. This may not qualify as the kind of accountability envisioned
in the Rome Statute.

Perhaps Colombia’s story can guide us. The ICC Prosecutor has made it clearthat removing the
possibility of criminal prosecution for the mass atrocities committed during the armed conflict
between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia could lead
her to resume the preliminary examination of the Colombian situation. Criminal accountability was
non-negotiable. This influenced both parties to the peace agreement to exclude amnesties and
pardons for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Against this backdrop, the consequences
of impeachment – mere removal from office – may not be enough to satisfy complementarity for
the Philippines.

Although the ICC has yet to define how alternative mechanisms of accountability fit into the
complementarity framework, the view that impeachment is insufficient to bar an ICC investigation
is more consistent with the complementarity principle. Since the ICC seeks to fill the gap left open
by states that do not genuinely investigate and criminally prosecute persons most responsible for
mass atrocities, it follows that to satisfy complementarity, the state must allow for a mechanism
that pushes for the same prosecutorial agenda.

Structural Challenges

If we only consider Duterte as the possible accused, then it is enough to justify ICC intervention
due to the grant of presidential immunity under RA 9851. However, the ICC Prosecutor may also
investigate other high-ranking officials involved in Operation Tokhang, such as PNP Chief Ronald
“Bato” Dela Rosa. Notably, Operation Tokhang is implemented by police forces.

Dela Rosa is not protected by immunity under RA 9851. National proceedings against him may
thus bar an ICC investigation. However, Philippine prosecutorial design may still allow ICC
intervention. The mandate to prosecute crimes under RA 9851 is partly lodged with the DOJ.
Institutionally, the DOJ is under the executive branch of the government, with the President as
Chief Executive. The Justice Secretary is a presidential appointee and serves on behalf of the
President. Under this set-up, it is highly unlikely that prosecution for any high-ranking official
implementing Duterte’s war on drugs will ever prosper. If the President himself encourages this
policy, then the idea of his representative (i.e., Justice Secretary) prosecuting the PNP Chief, the
person responsible for implementing Duterte’s policy, is unlikely. Alternatively, the Ombudsman
may theoretically prosecute Dela Rosa under RA 9851 because the drug killings resulting from
the implementation of Operation Tokhang were committed during his command of the PNP. If this
happens, it will eventually and separately call for an assessment of genuine willingness to

Another problem is evidence. Because prosecutions will have to rely on evidence collected by the
police – the very persons being investigated – prosecutors are stuck with no evidence in order to
move forward with their case. Even the CHR has to rely on police cooperation to facilitate their
human rights investigations. RA 9851 itself requires the CHR, the DOJ, and the PNP to work
together in prosecuting and investigating the crimes covered by that law. Who can assist the CHR
and the DOJ in their work when the target is the PNP Chief himself?

Viewed in this manner, the structure of the Philippine justice system paves the way for an ICC
preliminary investigation to proceed. The roadmap on complementarity exposes deep structural
problems in human rights accountability in the Philippines. Designing accountability mechanisms
based on state-dependent models presents a paradox for prosecutions of high-ranking
government officials because it is the state that is commonly held to account by human rights
laws. This system may work when catching low-level public officials, but not for bigger catch.
When the structure of justice for human rights abuses is circular, the ICC is likely to intervene with
respect to crimes within its jurisdiction.

What’s the point?

The ICC preliminary examination on the Philippines would be an uphill battle. Issues of
cooperation complicate the Prosecutor’s work. The Philippine institutional set-up does not help.
This raises the question: what can the ICC accomplish by opening a preliminary examination that
may take years to conclude?

In an ideal world, the ICC would have no cases to investigate and no defendants to try either
because of the absence of mass atrocities altogether or because all persons responsible for their
commission can be genuinely prosecuted domestically. At the end of the day, we want a world in
which governments are willing to make themselves accountable to the people. The ICC implicitly
shares this mission by punishing persons most responsible for mass atrocities when states are
unable or unwilling to do so, recognizing the reality that it is high-ranking government officials who
enjoy the most impunity. This is especially true in the Philippines, where no one from the Marcos
dictatorship has ever been held accountable to this day.

The principle of complementarity was embedded in the Rome Statute precisely to solve this kind
of problem. The mandate of the ICC is thus normative and adjudicative. The adjudicative mandate
is to stop impunity, however long it takes. The normative mandate, on the other hand, is more
long-term – to push states to build a justice system where ICC intervention is not necessary. This
is the reason why the ICC is and will remain important.

Jenny Domino is an LL.M. candidate at Harvard Law School. She served as a legal consultant at
the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, where she helped redesign the human rights
investigative framework for the Philippine “war on drugs”. She also previously interned at the
International Criminal Court