MANILA, Philippines – At the newly-refurbished chancery of the Philippine embassy in The Hague, the legal capital of the world, top Filipino lawyer Raul Pangalangan, formerly a judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC), joked on Tuesday, July 19: “I am sure my former colleagues at the ICC would have loved to attend, Ambassador, but of course you know there is an ongoing investigation of the Philippines.”
Pangalangan elicited hearty laughs from the room filled with top judges of the world and Philippine diplomats, including Ambassador to the Netherlands Eduardo Malaya.
It was Malaya who wrote ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan in November 2021, requesting to defer the investigation into the bloody drug war of then-president Rodrigo Duterte. It was a clever move that took some by surprise – although deferment is an option under the Rome Statute, it wasn’t what was expected from a government that swears it will never recognize the ICC, having effectively withdrawn in 2019.
Pangalangan spoke at an event of the Philippine embassy in The Hague meant to honor him and the late former Supreme Court justices, Cesar Bengzon and Florentino Feliciano, for their legacy as Filipino judges who sat on the world’s benches. Pangalangan served at the ICC, Feliciano at the appellate body of the World Trade Organization, and Bengzon as the only Filipino, so far, to have been judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Pangalangan, the only living honoree of the evening, toasted that “international law has always played a central role in the shaping of Philippine history.”
Demonized at home
Back home on TikTok, a crucial battleground for the Marcoses’ lifelong publicity campaign, Filipinos are lambasting the ICC, following the line of Duterte to curse foreigners whom, he says, interfere with our affairs. The most often used criticism: What’s the use of the ICC if it cannot even investigate the United States?
The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, unlike the Philippines, which worked for a decade to ratify our membership, only for it to be unilaterally revoked by Duterte in 2018, effective 2019, when he was already being investigated for crimes against humanity.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s justice secretary, Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, told Rappler Monday, July 18: “We have withdrawn from the ICC, so it’s more of a friendly relationship.” This was a day after the ICC pre-trial chamber asked the Philippine government to comment on Khan’s request to resume investigations.
Marcos has yet to definitively declare what his policy would be toward the ICC, which is investigating Duterte, whom the Marcoses claim is their “ally for life.” Press Secretary Trixie Cruz Angeles said on July 4 the calls to return the Philippines to the ICC “are duly noted but we’ll wait for the formal policy to be articulated by the President.”
International law has often been seen as a fantasy that ordinary Filipinos cannot relate to, what more benefit from. Pangalangan said international law must be seen as the one that allows Filipinos to authenticate the birth certificate of their child born abroad, or to get a Filipino’s foreign divorce recognized in the country.
“Today it has become part of the mundane and day-to-day needs of ordinary filipinos…and of course in the larger disputes, securing the hopes for redress of human rights victims, and asserting our claims to the resources of the oceans,” said Pangalangan.
‘It’s about dreams that will outlive us all’
Duterte’s first target wasn’t actually the ICC, but the United Nations (UN). Right off the bat in 2016 after winning the elections, Duterte called the UN “bullshit” and a “motherfucker.” That night in Davao City as president-elect, he said what many of his supporters would echo for the next six years – that the UN is useless in making powerful nations accountable.
At The Hague, Pangalangan said: “International law is not a hostile act.”
He was referencing the Philippines’ arbitral win against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the Aquino government. He quoted former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario as saying: “International law is a great equalizer among states.”
The evening was about celebrating the Philippines’ “significant contributions to the international and legal institutions they served and the field of international law generally,” said Malaya, before reciting other Filipinos who had served or appeared before international law bodies.
ICJ vice president Kirill Gevorgian called Bengzon a “staunch defender of human rights,” while ICJ Judge Iwasawa Yuji called Feliciano “a towering figure in international law.”
“There is no doubt that Filipinos have proven themselves as lead actors on the stage of international law,” said Philippine Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo in a video message played at The Hague.
Josephine Reyes, Feliciano’s daughter, said if her father were alive, “he would be deeply distressed about what is going on in the world.”
“But he would also be very hopeful that the rule of law, the dedication of distinguished people like yourselves here in this room, and with the determination of ordinary citizens, a way forward can always be found,” said Reyes.
For his part, Pangalangan said, “International law is not just about rules and provisions, it is actually about ideals and hopes – dreams that will outlive all of us.” – Rappler.com