With Due Respect

Filipinos in international judicial tribunals

Rare and few are the lawyers elevated to eminent international judicial tribunals. Membership in these courts is based on both the personal qualities of the nominees and the international political clout of the state or government nominating them.

Raul Pangalangan. This is why—in the cocktails-reception I hosted last Friday in honor of Dr. Raul C. Pangalangan, newly-elected judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC)—I invited both the head of the Philippine judiciary, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno, and the head of the Philippine diplomatic corps, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario, to be joint guest speakers.


They represented the two Philippine institutions exalted by Pangalangan’s elevation, the judiciary and the foreign service. And yet, he was not even a member of either groups. He was not even a public official.

Prior to his election, he was a private citizen; he was the publisher of this paper and a professorial lecturer at (and former dean of) the University of the Philippines College of Law (and other universities here and abroad).


Nominees for the ICC “must possess the qualifications required in their respective states for appointment to the highest judicial offices.” Additionally, they should be experts in either criminal law or international law, especially in international humanitarian law and international human rights. Verily, the ICC selection panel found him eminently qualified.

The problem was that the Philippines had exhausted the political “quid pro quo” clout it needed to secure the votes of other states. However, Secretary Del Rosario led our gung-ho diplomats in using Filipino ingenuity, hard work and battle-tested person-to-person skills to make up for our lack of political and financial resources.

For this heroic effort, special credit goes to our Ambassador to the Netherlands Jaime Victor Ledda, Ambassador to Belgium Victoria Bataclan, Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre, our permanent representative to the United Nations, and Ambassador Irene Susan Natividad, deputy permanent representative.

The result was Pangalangan’s stunning victory on June 24, 2015, and assumption to office on July 13, 2015, till March 10, 2021.

No immunity for heads of state. The ICC was organized officially on July 17, 1998, when its 120 member-states signed in Rome its “Statute” or Charter, which became effective on July 1, 2002, after 60 of the 120 signatories ratified it. Currently, the ICC has 123 members.

The Philippines signed the ICC Statute on Dec. 28, 2000, and our Senate ratified it on April 23, 2011, by a vote of 17-1. Then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile cast the only negative vote.

Unlike national courts, the ICC disregards the immunity from suit granted by national constitutions to heads of state. Neither does it recognize prescription of crimes and amnesty granted by local laws; quite the contrary, it insists on their command and individual responsibility.


In this way, the ICC nullified the territoriality defense in the commission of heinous crimes. Equally important, the ICC ended the old impunity enjoyed by dictators, presidents and other heads of state.

It sanctions violations of international humanitarian laws during armed conflicts and international human rights during peace time, thereby promoting the humane treatment of combatants and the strict observance of fundamental civil, political and social rights.

The ICC is a court of last resort, available only for exceptional cases when national judicial systems fail to mete out justice because they are unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute those who are responsible for the serious crimes, like “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression.”

Other international Filipino jurists. The highest judicial tribunal in the world is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which, like the ICC, is headquartered in The Hague. It is the judicial organ of the United Nations.

The only Filipino elected to this elite tribunal is Cesar Bengzon, who became one of the 15 ICJ members in November 1966, three months after he retired as our chief justice. I remember him fondly because he signed my certificate of membership in the Philippine bar in 1961.

Since then, the Philippines had been unable to get into the ICJ again because the Asian region is assigned only three ICJ memberships, two of which are always taken by China and Japan, and the third is allocated to a Middle East country. The Middle East is deemed a part of Asia in the UN groupings.

On Dec. 13, 1995, my colleague, Supreme Court Justice Florentino P. Feliciano, was elected a member (and later served as chair) of the Appellate Tribunal of the World Trade Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, for a term of six years.

The WTO Appellate Tribunal, composed of nine judges, reviews decisions of a lower “Panel” regarding violations of international trade laws committed by states.

Retired Justice Flerida Ruth P. Romero, who I was fortunate to meet in our Supreme Court, was named the first woman and only Filipino to the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labor Organization, another specialized agency of the UN. This court decides labor disputes among UN offices, or between UN employees and the UN agency employing them.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was elected an ICC judge a few years ago. Unfortunately, she was overtaken by ill health before she could discharge her duties and had to resign.

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TAGS: Albert del Rosario, Cesar Bengzon, Flerida Ruth P. Romero, florentino Feliciano, International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, Lourdes Sereno, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Raul Pangalangan
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