President Rodrigo Duterte reviews an honor guard in Manila on Tuesday. (Cristin/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/Cristin/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

The International Criminal Court announced Thursday it is opening a probe into deaths linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” a move that eventually could lead to charges of crimes against humanity.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she is opening a preliminary examination into the high number of killings since Duterte took office in the summer of 2016. Her statement confirmed an earlier announcement from Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, who broke the news ahead of the court. 

In a news conference earlier Thursday, Roque said the Philippines had been informed of the examination. He claimed that Duterte, who has regularly condemned and dismissed the court, welcomed the news.

“He’s sick and tired of being accused,” Roque said. “He wants to be in court and put the prosecutor on the stand.”

Human rights and legal experts were glad to see the court take action.

Agnès Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, welcomed the move, saying that the Philippines is not living up to its international obligations to investigate the killings.

“As I have warned repeatedly, a major human rights crisis has been unfolding in the Philippines, characterized, amongst other things, by a vast number of allegations of extrajudicial executions and a failure on the part of the state to undertake prompt, independent, impartial investigations,” she said.

“This is a good call, and it’s about time,” said Mark Kersten, an expert on international justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Talk of such an investigation has been swirling since the early months of Duterte’s presidency. 

Since the man nicknamed the “death squad mayor” swept to power on a promise to eliminate all of the country’s suspected drug users and dealers, thousands of Filipinos have been killed — either shot dead in police raids with high death tolls and few witnesses, or assassinated by men on motorbikes, often after being named by police. 

In October 2016, when the death toll stood at several thousand, Bensouda warned the government. The ICC’s lead prosecutor said she was “deeply concerned about these alleged killings and the fact that public statements of high officials of the Republic of the Philippines seem to condone such killings.” 

Duterte shrugged off her warning, and the killings continued

In April 2017, a Philippine lawyer hand-delivered a complaint to the ICC, which is based in The Hague, accusing the president and 11 associates of mass murder and crimes against humanity. Duterte and his allies dismissed the move.

The Philippines signed the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the ICC, in 2011, which means the court has jurisdiction for crimes within its mandate that are committed there. But the court can step in only if it is clear that local authorities have failed to investigate and prosecute crimes. 

Roque, a former lawyer, has argued that it is up to the Philippines to “bring to bear our national criminal justice system upon those who violate our laws.”

So far, Duterte’s strong political support, combined with his reputation for silencing critics, has kept Philippine institutions from conducting independent investigations or pursuing criminal charges.

In fact, there has yet to be a single successful prosecution of officers accused of drug war abuses, despite compelling evidence of systematic killings, staged crime scenes and extortion. Duterte has repeatedly vowed to pardon police officers. 

Roque’s “assertion that the Philippine government has been willing and able to investigate those deaths has simply not been true,” Param-Preet Singh, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, wrote in a statement.

“The government’s claims of its preparedness to prosecute offenders is grotesquely deceptive,” Singh said.

Experts stressed that a preliminary examination is not a case or even a charge, and that the court’s work takes years, not weeks or months.

Whatever the outcome, the fact that the ICC is opening an examination is likely to have an impact on Duterte and the Philippines.

The tag­line “being investigated by the ICC” could make it more difficult for foreign governments, including the United States, to work with Duterte, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a security analyst and author of “The Rise of Duterte.”

“This will clearly solicit widespread international attention and thus re-energize those that seek justice and accountability,” he said.