MANILA — Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines may have committed crimes against humanity by inciting killings during his bloody antidrug campaign.
Thousands of people have been killed by the police or by vigilantes since Duterte became president in June, and rights groups say the police may have ordered the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users, a charge that officials have denied.
In a report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch examined 32 deaths from October to January, all involving the Philippine National Police. Police reports asserted that officers had committed the killings in self-defense, but witnesses characterized them as “cold-blooded murders of unarmed drug suspects in custody,” the rights group’s study said.
“We think there’s a very strong case to be made in front of the ICC that crimes against humanity have been committed,” Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said by telephone, referring to the International Criminal Court. She said the first step should be parallel investigations into Duterte’s antidrug campaign by the United Nations and by the Philippine Justice Department.
In a statement on Thursday, Ernesto Abella, a spokesman for Duterte, said the report’s allegations were baseless.
“A war on criminality is not a war on humanity,” he said. “On the contrary, it is a war precisely to protect humanity from a modern-day evil. To say otherwise is to undermine society’s legitimate desire to be free from fear and to pander to the interests of the criminals.”
The Philippines is a member of the International Criminal Court. In October, the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement that she was “deeply concerned” about reports of extrajudicial killings in the country.
Bensouda said the killings could fall under the international court’s jurisdiction “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.”
But Romel Bagares, a rights lawyer at the Center for International Law in Manila, said in an interview on Thursday that Philippine law appears to grant the president immunity from prosecution while in office.
Even though the International Criminal Court encourages domestic courts to prosecute crimes against humanity, “it may not be helpful at this point to immediately raise the ICC’s jurisdiction as a trump card,” Bagares added. “The threshold has to be established by documenting the relevant cases and filing the cases in Philippine courts, if only to show that there is a failure or an unwillingness to prosecute on the part of the state.”
It is unlikely that Duterte would face domestic prosecution while president. His allies control both houses of Congress, and his justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, is one of his old fraternity brothers.
Last week, Aguirre oversaw the arrest of Senator Leila de Lima, the chief critic of Duterte’s bloody antidrug campaign, on charges that she took bribes from imprisoned drug traffickers.
De Lima chaired a Senate panel last year that heard testimony from a professed hit man who said he belonged to a death squad that Duterte had overseen while serving as mayor of Davao City. De Lima has denied the charges against her, describing them as political persecution.