Philippines and Venezuela: A move away from armed conflict for ICC?

09 February 2018 by Stephanie van den Berg

The International Criminal Court (ICC) took another step this week away from its much-criticized Africa focus that could take the court beyond armed conflict situations and into the tactics used in peacetime by state security forces and police against alleged drug gangs and attacks on dissidents when it announced it was opening preliminary examinations in the Philippines and Venezuela.

On Thursday the ICC prosecutor said she was looking into the alleged killing of thousands of people during the Philippines' "war on drugs" since July 2016. Reports say some 4,000 people, mostly from poor urban backgrounds were killed by police in the past 19 months during what the government calls the “war on drugs”. In a statement prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that “it is alleged that many of the reported incidents involved extra-judicial killings in the course of police anti-drug operations”.

Bensouda had already warned last year that “extra-judicial killings may fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC if they are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population pursuant to a state policy to commit such an attack”. For these killings to fall under ICC jurisdiction there doesn’t have to be an armed conflict because for crimes against humanity just a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population would be enough.

In the same announcement the prosecutor said it opened a preliminary examination into the alleged use of "excessive force" by the state security forces of Venezuela since last April. Last year the government of leftist President Nicolas Maduro faced months of protests. Human rights organizations have said report over 5,000 people were detained and 757 prosecuted in military courts, with 124 deaths.

The ICC prosecutor says it will analyse crimes committed in Venezuela since April 2017 including allegations of the use of excessive force by government forces and the arrest and detention of thousands of alleged opposition members “a number of whom would have been allegedly subjected to serious abuse and ill-treatment in detention”. She added that she would also look into reports that some protesters also resorted to violence resulting in security force members being injured or killed.

The preliminary examinations in Venezuela and the Philippines could pave the way to similar probes in Mexico where NGO’s have been urging the court for years to look into the tens of thousands of disappearances and hundreds of thousands deaths linked to drugs violence in battles between the cartels themselves and state security services. Human rights watchdog FIDH has also filed communications with the ICC to urge them to open an investigation into land grabbing in member state Cambodia committed by government members and security forces . They added Bangladesh, court member since 2010, as another example of a state party where activist allege peacetime mass violations of the Rome Statute linked to forced disappearances and illegal detention of opposition figures.

 With no new arrestees or cases on the docket in The Hague, preliminary examinations have been the most interesting area of the prosecutor’s work in recent months. But some observers have warned that the court risks looking like yet another commission of inquiry if it fails to actually bring alleged perpetrators to justice.

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte shows a copy of a diagram showing the connection of high level drug syndicates (Photo: Flickr/KING RODRIGUEZ/Presidential Photographers Division)

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