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VERA FILES FACT CHECK YEARENDER: The Phantom of Duterte’s Disinformation Opera

Misleading claims of former president Rodrigo Duterte on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) continued to haunt the disinformation landscape in 2023 even as the current administration now considers cooperating in the tribunal’s ongoing probe into the bloody drug war.

Known Duterte allies in President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s government rehashed the former leader’s narrative, insisting that the ICC no longer has jurisdiction over cases of alleged extrajudicial killings in the country following its withdrawal from the Rome Statute that established the Netherlands-based court.

Duterte unilaterally pulled out the country from the ICC in 2018 after the tribunal launched a preliminary investigation into the deaths and crimes committed in the course of implementing his controversial anti-drug campaign.

Elected officials took turns denying that Duterte had “ordered” the killing of drug suspects, even though the former president himself had admitted to some of these in his public speeches.

Duterte continued to benefit from disinformation on this issue even almost two years after his term ended in June 2022.

VERA Files Fact Check analyzed these claims, and here are the patterns:

State of Denial 

Of the 116 cases of mis- and disinformation spread by public figures last year that VERA Files Fact Check had debunked, 14 were related to the ICC’s drug war probe. In six of these, executive and legislative officials insisted that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the country following the Philippines’ withdrawal from the treaty in 2018.

Harry Roque, former spokesman of Duterte, first adopted this line of reasoning in March 2019 when the country’s withdrawal from the ICC took effect.

Roque further argued that the ICC had “no continuing jurisdiction” in the country because prior to the withdrawal, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I had not yet authorized any investigation.

Duterte himself popularized this same argument for the first time in 2022, just days before his term ended.

The former president’s allies in the Senate revived the claim of  Roque, who first said in 2018 that the ICC had “no jurisdiction” to probe drug-related killings on the basis of the complementarity principle.

Some lawmakers, specifically Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa and Surigao Del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, denied claims that Duterte ordered the killing of drug suspects even though the former president himself had admitted this in some of his public speeches.

They clarified that the pronouncements were “not serious,” referring to Duterte’s statement in a 2018 speech that his “only sin” was the extrajudicial killings.

The missing links

Duterte allies in the present administration reinforced the narrative that the ICC’s probe is unwarranted, citing the country’s “functioning courts” and its implications on Philippine sovereignty.

They omitted mentioning a 2021 Supreme Court 15-0 decision that the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC does not nullify its obligations under the Rome Statute with regard to extralegal killings committed from November 2011 to March 17, 2019, when the country was still a member of the court.

To reinforce their claims, these public figures portrayed the ICC as an intrusive institution trying to undermine the country’s judicial independence.

When invoking the complementarity principle, officials often mentioned that Philippine courts are “functioning” and doing their own investigation into these killings. They accused the ICC of “overreach[ing]” and violating its own principles with its probe.

In making these claims, they fail to mention the crucial context that the ICC may only have jurisdiction when a country’s legal systems fail to prosecute crimes, or in instances where states “purport to act but in reality are unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out proceedings.”

In a document authorizing the resumption of the drug war probe in January 2023, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I also emphasized that the Philippines’ probe does not amount to concrete and tangible investigative steps that cover more than the low-ranking officers involved in the crimes.

In January and February, Remulla and Marcos joined the fray, calling the ICC probe a “threat” to the country’s sovereignty.

Vice President Sara Duterte maintained a “no comment” stance after the ICC rejected the government’s appeal to stop its investigation of her father’s bloody drug war and when she was named, alongside incumbent Sens. Christopher “Bong” Go and Dela Rosa, in ICC probe documents.

After Marcos said in July that the country was done talking to the ICC, the chorus of statements in favor of Duterte  slowed down.

During this five-month lull, Congress shifted its sights to the 2024 budget deliberations in which VP Duterte’s P125-million confidential funds in 2022 drew heavy criticism.

(Watch VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Bakit kailangan ang confidential at intelligence funds? and VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Ano ba talaga, Sara?)

By November, however, the same claims against the ICC resurfaced after lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate filed resolutions urging the Philippine government to cooperate in the ICC probe.

This time, it was only VP Duterte, Dela Rosa and Sen. Imee Marcos who rehashed the Duterte-era arguments and insisted that the administration maintain the status quo on its position against the ICC probe.

President Marcos and Remulla, meantime, had softened their stance and were now singing the same tune, saying the administration would study the prospect of the Philippines rejoining the ICC.

(Read VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Marcos changes tune on the possibility of PH rejoining ICC)

In March 2023, Duterte explained that his kill, kill, kill orders were a “matter of principle” that aligned with his oath to protect the country as the president then.

Wala akong pakialam, basta ginawa ko iyong dapat kong gawin. I’ll face the music, I will rot in prison and I will die in prison,” Duterte said.

 

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Sources

State of Denial

The missing links

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)