Get the Backstory on Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’ as ICC Green Lights Investigation into Philippines Killings

A still image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte from the January 2021 FRONTLINE documentary "A Thousand Cuts."

A still image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte from the January 2021 FRONTLINE documentary "A Thousand Cuts."

September 17, 2021

The International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an official investigation this week into Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”: a bloody campaign that has resulted in thousands of deaths under Duterte’s administration.

Since Duterte was elected in 2016, Philippines security forces have admitted to carrying out more than 6,000 killings of alleged drug suspects, citing self-defense. Thousands of additional people have reportedly been executed by mysterious gunmen.

Based on a preliminary investigation begun in 2018 by an ICC prosecutor, the court announced Wednesday that it has authorized a full investigation, finding that “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.” Instead, the announcement said, an ICC pre-trial chamber found indications that “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population took place pursuant to or in furtherance of a State policy.”

“The total number of civilians killed in connection with the [war on drugs] between July 2016 and March 2019 appears to be between 12,000 and 30,000,” according to a report by the ICC prosecutor requesting a full investigation.

In addition to examining nationwide killings during Duterte’s presidential administration, the ICC investigation will look at killings in the Davao region from 2011 to 2016, a time period that overlaps in part with Duterte’s final stint as mayor of the city of Davao.

A spokesperson for Duterte’s administration said the government would not be cooperating with the probe, that investigators would not be allowed into the country and that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in the Philippines, Reuters reported. Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the treaty that established the ICC — based in The Hague, Netherlands — in 2018, after the court opened its preliminary examination into the killings.

Over the past several years, FRONTLINE has been chronicling Duterte’s rise, his wars on both drugs and the press, and the impacts on democracy. Revisit these collected reports — two documentaries and one podcast episode — for more context.

On the President’s Orders (2019)

“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” Duterte said in 2016, shortly after launching his war on suspected drug users and dealers. “Now there is 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” Weaving in Duterte’s own statements, this FRONTLINE documentary from Olivier Sarbil and James Jones showed how Duterte’s “war on drugs” has played out in the streets of Manila, the nation’s capital — and why citizen activists say the campaign is “clearly a war on the poor.”

Sarbil and Jones embedded with a police unit in the Caloocan district of Manila and also filmed with families of alleged victims who suspected the police of running secret death squads, despite Duterte’s vow to scale back after police were accused of killing two unarmed teens in the summer of 2017.

In a statement in response to the documentary, a Duterte spokesperson said: “Drug-related killings are absolutely not state-initiated or state-sponsored. These killings result from violent resistance on the part of those sought to be arrested by police agents” — a claim family members and human rights groups have disputed. “The president, as strict enforcer of the law, does not tolerate abusive police officers. … those who abuse their authority will have hell to pay,” the statement said.

Blood and Power in the Philippines (2019)

In this episode of The FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast produced by Jeb Sharp, reporter Aurora Almendral investigated Duterte’s popularity within the Philippines, the events that shaped him and his rise to the presidency. Almendral began in his hometown of Davao, the largest city in the southern Philippines and where Duterte served as mayor for multiple terms spanning more than two decades.

“Duterte is credited for transforming Davao into a relatively peaceful and prosperous city,” Almendral said in the episode, but he also “became linked to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad, [whose] members — some police, some civilians — are accused of assassinating alleged drug dealers and other suspects. They’d ride two to a motorcycle to go hunt them down. Those methods now look like a blueprint for some of the tactics of his current drug war.”

A Thousand Cuts (2021)

In the months after Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, journalist Maria Ressa’s staff at the independent news site Rappler investigated a slew of killings believed to be connected to his brutal war on suspected drug dealers and users. Ressa also published a series of stories examining the rapid-fire spread of online disinformation in support of Duterte, who has said journalists “are not exempted from assassination.”

As this feature-length documentary from director Ramona S. Diaz chronicled, Ressa soon became the focus of online disinformation and threats herself — and a prime target in Duterte’s war on the press. “What we’re seeing is a death by a thousand cuts of our democracy,” Ressa said in the documentary. “When you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die.” But Ressa vowed she and Rappler would carry on in the face of online harassment and numerous court actions: “We will not duck; we will not hide. We will hold the line.”

More than 300 FRONTLINE documentaries are streaming now. Browse the collection.

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