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Philippines won't cooperate in probe involving crimes against humanity allegations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The International Criminal Court has denied an appeal by the Philippine government to stop the court's investigation into the country's lethal yearslong war against drugs. As Ashley Westerman reports from Manila, the Philippines is accused of committing crimes against humanity. And its current administration says it will not cooperate with the probe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: At a high school auditorium in Caloocan City in the northern part of metro Manila, a special play is being put on about the Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Welcome to the Philippines. The Philippines is called the pearl of the orient seas.

WESTERMAN: But this performance is not about praising the Philippines. It's political performance art that aims to air out the country's dirty laundry.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The Philippines is a nation of so many political promises that failed. Welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WESTERMAN: For several minutes, actors parade across the stage holding signs that spell out things like corruption, inflation, illegal mining, bullying by China. Eventually, the performance turns its attention to the government's ongoing war on drugs launched by former President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Amelia Santos (ph), the 55-year-old widow of a man allegedly killed by police in an anti-drug operation, takes the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

AMELIA SANTOS: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: "I didn't believe it at first," she says. Santos recalls coming home from work to be told her husband had been shot multiple times by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

SANTOS: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: "And to this day, justice eludes her family," she says. She's not alone. Nearly the entire cast is made up of people who have lost loved ones in the so-called war on drugs and have not received justice for the killings. Philippine officials say that only some 6,200 people have died in anti-drug operations since 2016. Most police claim self-defense in these incidents. But rights groups in the United Nations estimate it could be more, killed extra-judiciously by either police or vigilantes.

AURORA PARONG: Human rights organizations have been saying that 27,000 to about 30,000 might have been killed.

WESTERMAN: Aurora Parong is with the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court. It is these killings outside of the law that the ICC wants to investigate. It began in 2021 and has been met with various pushbacks over the years. But since the court denied an appeal by the Philippines last month...

PARONG: The ICC office of the prosecutor can now continue what they started as an investigation into the possible crimes against humanity.

WESTERMAN: For human rights campaigners and legal experts, the person responsible is former President Duterte. But current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. says the government will not cooperate because it has already concluded that the police are just doing their jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BONGBONG MARCOS: I do not see what their jurisdiction is. I feel that we have in our police and our judiciary a good system.

WESTERMAN: Indeed, the Philippines withdrew from the ICC in 2018. But since the killings began before that, the court can still investigate. This puts President Marcos in a difficult position politically, says Jean Encinas-Franco, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

JEAN ENCINAS-FRANCO: His recent pronouncements regarding the ICC probe brings back the violent history of his father. So instead of making gains in terms of reviving the Marcos name before the international community, I see it as a setback.

WESTERMAN: But Marcos also owes his presidential victory to his alliance with the Dutertes, Franco says, particularly Sara Duterte, the current vice president and the daughter of the former president.

ENCINAS-FRANCO: I think Marcos Jr. would not want to antagonize Sara Duterte's supporters.

WESTERMAN: And polls show that Duterte, as well as the war against drugs as a policy, remain incredibly popular among Filipino voters today.

(CROSSTALK)

WESTERMAN: Back at the auditorium, the play has wrapped up. Backstage, Amelia Santos says this is her first time to perform.

SANTOS: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: "After my husband died, I wasn't able to say anything I felt," she says. "Now I'm relieved." Like other victims' families, Santos will have to wait and see what comes of the International Criminal Court investigation. But in the meantime, she says she will continue to fight for justice herself.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.