Protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Duterte’s Dubious Defense

The veneer of invincibility surrounding Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is beginning to fade. His formal response to the International Criminal Court's preliminary investigation into his "war on drugs" was a combination of fiction and calumny, suggesting that he is more vulnerable than many assume.

NEW YORK – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte likes to talk tough and act tougher. He has joked about wanting to commit sexual assault against a murdered missionary, applied his favorite epithet – “son of a whore” – to Pope Francis and Barack Obama, and boasted about personally killing criminals when he was the mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao.

Most significantly, Duterte has publicly encouraged the Philippine National Police to murder suspected drug dealers and users, promising to shield officers who do so from legal consequences. Many police have complied; since Duterte took office in June 2016, an estimated 12,000 officially sanctioned drug-related murders have been documented.

But after nearly two years of perfecting his strongman persona, Duterte is now acting vulnerable. In February, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), opened a preliminary investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity connected to the Philippines’ “war on drugs.” Duterte’s response was as unconvincing as it was desperate.

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