The hope that I lost in The Hague

I have aged in the justice beat alongside the ICC investigation; and since I started, I am now more honest about the limitations of international justice, its colonial framework, and its vulnerability to politics. But that doesn’t make it any easier to do when I know that victims of the drug war look to the ICC as their last hope.

“BUT YOU have a free press, right?” is a question I’d never thought I would have to answer from an important source in The Hague, the legal capital of the world and the seat of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is investigating, for the first time, the Philippines for alleged crimes against humanity under the leadership of strongman Rodrigo Duterte.

I could not say, in good conscience, that we do not have a democracy. It depends on what you mean by free, I tried to articulate, and described a press that is functioning despite sustained killings of journalists, increasing persecution, and shutdown of media companies, one of them my own.

I was on a reporting trip in The Hague in June in the company of journalists from other countries in ICC’s docket. My Ukrainian colleagues traveled almost a day because no commercial flights connected their war-torn country to other capitals in Europe or the rest of the world.

 Our group included my Venezuelan colleague, an exile in Miami with a standing warrant from the Nicolás Maduro government; and a Burundian journalist seeking asylum in the Netherlands.

In different moments I found myself reluctant to talk about the Philippines, or my work in Rappler, because none could compare to their problems. I also had to be careful in writing this — as I have to clarify that ICC jurisdiction doesn’t require that the Philippines be a non-functioning jungle. That is why there is a narrow “same person, same conduct” test to satisfy jurisdiction: whether the Philippines is willing and able to investigate the very same person, and the very same crimes that the ICC is looking into.

It took a while before I recognized that that’s what it’s like to be gaslit. Because isn’t that the line of former human rights lawyer and Duterte’s mouthpiece, Harry Roque? “It’s an insult to us, as if we are like Sudan,” Roque once said in 2018 in his many speeches arguing against an ICC investigation, which has now reached the point when the prosecutor can request for a warrant or a summons.

I have been covering the ICC’s Philippine investigation since 2018, but it took me a trip to The Hague in June 2023 to realize just how potent this Duterte narrative is: that the Philippines is a working democracy that does not need a foreign court’s intervention. Of course by that time, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was already jet-setting around the world on a global public relations campaign, and it was working.

I was in The Hague, brought by the Journalists for Justice, for the Hague Justice Week. During that week, ICC judges were roaming the city like ordinary persons. At a reception at the city hall, I saw ICC Judge Solomy Balungi Bossa and Mozambique Judge Elisa Boerekamp who had just given lectures on women in the judiciary. I went to them and struck up a conversation about Filipino women in the judiciary, particularly Duterte’s attacks against ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.

I asked for a photo, perhaps my mistake. Judge Boerekamp said to tag her when I tweet it. Perhaps my second mistake. I had just delivered a speech at the Hague Talks condemning Duterte’s bloody drug war, and the Marcos revisionism, but it’s my tweet of my short conversation with ICC Judge Bossa which got me severely trolled that X (formerly Twitter) had to filter my notifications.

A rabid Duterte vlogger started a speculation that I was conniving with the ICC to prosecute a former head of state. Again perhaps it was a mistake to tweet about it — but I was thinking at the time that there was nothing I said in The Hague that I have not already reported publicly.

But what I failed to consider was that the Philippines was disinformation ground zero, and a bulk of fake news about the ICC come from my country. By tweeting, I had offered myself as an ingredient to more fake news. 

Disinformation on a very alien legal topic such as the ICC is hard to fight. It is highly legalese, and interpretation varies. This is the aspect of my job I find most difficult — I must be very careful not to be wrong, but I also must not be too technical that only a few understand me.

“Human time is very different from the court’s time,” someone from the Peace Palace, home to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), told me when I asked how to explain to Filipino fishermen why six years after our PCA win, they were still being harassed by China in the West Philippine Sea. I found that explanation very frustrating. My colleagues and I took our turns appealing to the Court to please consider adopting a communications strategy that would reach an audience beyond the legal profession.

“Justice understood only by lawyers is not justice at all,” I later muttered underneath my breath to as we walked the quiet, hallowed corridors of the Peace Palace. I regretted not saying it during the meeting.

A diplomat once told me that being a non-lawyer in this world meant that I have no blinders. I guess it also means I can get away with saying, “international law is a fantasy,” and “I am a recovering international law addict” in public, albeit to the strong objection of many lawyers, I am sure.

As I told the Hague Talks audience, one of the most difficult conversations of my life was telling a widow of the Ampatuan massacre not to expect the damages awarded to her by the lower court anytime soon, and then having no answer for when she could expect it. I dread a similar conversation with a drug war victim, where the timeline is less certain, and the outcomes more vague. 

I have aged in the justice beat alongside the ICC investigation; and since I started, I am now more honest about the limitations of international justice, its colonial framework, and its vulnerability to politics. But that doesn’t make it any easier to do when I know that victims of the drug war look to the ICC as their last hope.

I understand why they do. I’ve covered enough hearings to know that domestic justice is a frustrating cause. As a Filipino justice reporter, of course I want our local system to work. I now find it challenging to balance that desire, without betraying the desire of those more important than me: the victims.

It’s a pivotal moment for the Philippines. It is the first time that we find ourselves in the same court investigating the more graphic wars in the Middle East and Europe. But I always keep in mind that a war on drugs, even as it is a war of abstracts, should not be treated less seriously. In fact, the Mexican drug war has killed more people than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined between 2007 and 2014. That’s data that my professor in my human rights law masters in London likes to cite. He also liked to remind us that everything we know about international human rights law were imperial products.

In our last day of class, I asked him: “I came to this continent looking for hope, but I’ve just become more hopeless.” It was a wrong place to come to for hope, he told me. And he’s right, I learned in London the role that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill played in the United Nations preserving a colonial order. I also learned of the ways that the United Kingdom, which is ironically very vocal about China complying with the Philippines’ arbitral award, also evades international rulings against it (Search: Chagos Islands case).

My fellow Filipino scholar, a public school teacher and a scientist, told me that his own professor in Belfast, Ireland, did not like the word “hope.” Don’t hope, just do, my friend relayed to me. I like that.

As I continue covering the ICC, I will become more frustrated at the hypocrisy of the entire concept, but it is not my job to bring hope to victims, or Filipinos. My job is to tell the stories, and preserve them for the next generations to come. So I will do that. If I bring hope, then that’s just a happy but unintended consequence. MT



Lian is an investigative reporter for Rappler covering justice, corruption, and human rights.