Families of victims await justice as the ICC reopens Philippines drug war probe
MANILA, Philippines — On a bright stage in a rented-out high school auditorium, Amelia Santos grieves openly before the audience.
Clutching a wireless microphone, the 55-year-old from Caloocan City, an area in Metro Manila's north, recalls the day she returned home from work in September 2016 and was told her husband, Edward Narvarte, had been killed.
"Somebody went to my house and told me, 'Go to your husband because he was killed, he was shot a lot of times by the police,'" she says. "When I arrived, there were police... and I saw the dead bodies of the victims, my husband was one of them."
Her family has not been the same, Santos tells the audience. Her children are scared and depressed and she is alone and afraid. Authorities linked her husband to a notorious Philippine drug lord, she says — a connection Santos denies.
With tears streaming down her face and her voice quivering with a mix of outrage and sadness, Santos recalls asking God, "Why? Why did this happen to us?"
"I will not stop until justice has been served," she says.
Santos is not alone. Almost all of the nearly 20 people onstage in this play, titled EJK Teatro, have lost a loved one to the Philippine government's so-called war on drugs — launched by former President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.
EJK stands for extrajudicial killing. The play is part of the nonprofit Arnold Janssen Kalinga Foundation's Program Paghilom, which has been helping victims' families since 2016. Performing onstage is a sort of cathartic therapy for those who want to bring attention to critical issues in the Philippines. From inflation woes and environmental issues to the drug war and fears of a takeover by China, this eclectic performance — a nearly hour-long mix of scripted lines, unscripted monologues and lots of music and dancing — pulls no punches.
The day NPR attended, human rights campaigners, victims' family members and their supporters were joined in the audience by a delegation from the European Union, including EU Special Representative on Human Rights Eamon Gilmore.
The performance comes at a time when the slow wheels of justice appear to be starting to turn in the drug war.
Last month, the International Criminal Court denied an appeal by the Philippine government for the court to suspend collecting evidence for its investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed during the seven-year war on drugs.
The denial of this appeal, analysts say, will inevitably bring government officials into the scope of the investigation — putting current President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. in a tough bind politically, as his vice president is Duterte's daughter and she is a political ally who helped him secure the nation's top office last May.
The denial came two months after the ICC declared that the Philippines' own investigation into the drug war — a tactic by Duterte to slow down the ICC investigation — was not sufficient and that the court would resume the probe it attempted to launch in 2021.
Philippine officials say that some 6,200 people have died in anti-drug operations since Duterte launched the war on drugs. Human rights groups and the United Nations estimate the number could be much higher, with most killed by police or vigilantes.
It is these extrajudicial killings that the ICC is looking to investigate, and now the ICC Office of the Prosecutor can move forward in collecting evidence while a second appeal to throw out the investigation entirely is pending, says Aurora Parong, co-chair of the Philippines Coalition for the International Criminal Court.
Evidence, she says, includes information such as interviews and testimony from victims' families. The court will also be able to start asking the government for information, "and after they have collected all that evidence, they should be able to identify a possible suspect who will be charged," she says.
Many human rights campaigners and legal experts say Duterte is the person responsible. However, obtaining evidence — such as communications between officials and police and testimony from officials — will be a challenge, given that President Marcos has said his government will not cooperate with the ICC.
"I do not see what their jurisdiction is," Marcos told reporters in January. "I feel we have our police, in our judiciary a good system. We do not need any assistance from any outside entity."
Analysts say this jurisdiction argument is faulty, because even though Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2018, the alleged human rights abuses of the drug war began earlier — so the ICC can still investigate them.
Still, Marcos has vowed to "disengage with the ICC" and has banned its investigators from entering the country.
This stance puts Marcos in a difficult spot politically as he works to both charm internationally and keep his own house in order, says Jean Encinas-Franco, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Since taking office in May 2022, Marcos, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has traveled abroad in an attempt to secure economic and security agreements – which he hopes will rehabilitate his family name following his father's peaceful 1986 ouster in what's known as the "People Power Revolution."
But his stance on the ICC investigation "brings back the violent history of his father," Encinas-Franco says. That violent history included torture, extrajudicial killings and the targeting of political opponents, journalists and activists.
Domestically, Marcos knows he owes his presidential victory to his alliance with the Duterte family, she says — particularly Vice President Sara Duterte, daughter of the former president. Riding the coattails of her father's popularity, Duterte helped Marcos secure a landslide victory last year.
"I think Marcos Jr. would not want to antagonize Sara Duterte's supporters at this point in his administration," Encinas-Franco says.
Both Rodrigo Duterte and the anti-drug campaign as a policy are still popular — particularly among low-income voters. And it is these ordinary Filipinos that Marcos is probably banking on, Encinas-Franco says: "I think it would be very easy for him to sort of explain in simplistic terms that the ICC is encroaching on the Philippines' sovereignty."
But not all ordinary Filipinos will buy the sovereignty argument from Marcos — especially those who've been deeply affected by the war on drugs.
People like Amelia Santos, who has wrapped up her performance back at the auditorium. This was her first time onstage, she says.
"I wasn't able to express much after my husband died, to say everything that's inside," Santos says. "I am relieved."
Like other victims' loved ones, Santos is waiting to see what justice — if any — the ICC investigation brings.
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