COVID-19 Op-ed

Protecting Rights while Protecting lives: Does Human Rights Give Way to a State of Emergency?

Anton Miguel A. SisonJuris Doctor (Candidate), University of the Philippines (UP) College of LawResearch Assistant, UP Law Center Institute of Human Rights

We applaud every frontliner—health workers, police, soldiers, public officials, etc.—who risks their lives in our battle against COVID-19.As citizens, we are expected by the Government to do our part by complying with emergency health measures such as the community quarantine. However, let us not forget that it is also our duty as citizens to protect our rights. While it is true that we should place public health and safety first, it should not unnecessarily come at the expense of our human rights. After all, being cooperative citizens and being vigilant are not mutually exclusive.Human rights organizations and citizens took to both traditional and online media their concerns against some government measures in pursuit of beating COVID-19. These include  arrests made without a warrant for failure to abide by the community quarantine curfew and the corresponding punishment. As of April 3, authorities have apprehended over 75,000 Filipinos (Nakpil, 2020.) Some of those apprehended are children who have been subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment for such failure of compliance. In fact, it was reported that two children were placed in a coffin, five caged like animals, seven had their hair forcibly cut while the one who resisted was stripped and ordered to walk home naked (Human Rights Watch, 2020.) Others were even forced to sit under the scourging afternoon heat for hours (Human Rights Watch, 2020.)In a radio interview with Super Radyo DZBB last March 21, Department of Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Martin Diño made a sweeping claim that human rights are suspended during a state of emergency. Diño stated “Wala na hong karapatan. Tandaan niyo, state of emergency ngayon. Ang karapatang pantao ay nawawala pagdating ng state of emergency.” (There are no more rights. Remember, we are in a state of emergency. Human rights disappear in a state of emergency.). “Pagka ho meron tayong state of emergency, ‘yung writ of habeas corpus ay nawawala na po yan”, he added. (When under a state of emergency, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus disappears.)This is not only misleading, but blatantly wrong. There is nothing in both International and Philippine laws that justifies the suspension of human rights, nor the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus by mere declaration of State of Emergency.First, as to human rights, a declaration of a state of national emergency by the Philippine Government does not justify an unqualified derogation of human rights under Article 4 and other provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a State Party to (ICCPR, Art. 4.) Under Article 4(1) of the ICCPR, states may only take derogating measures to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation and which are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law. Article 4(2) further enumerates rights which cannot be derogated in any case, such as:

  1. Right to life;
  2. Right against torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  3. Right against slavery and servitude;
  4. Right against imprisonment for failure to fulfill contractual obligations;
  5. Right against ex post facto punishment;
  6. Right to recognition; and
  7. Right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Second, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which is a legal remedy for questioning the legality of one’s arrest, is not suspended. The 1987 Constitution provides that the president may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus only “in case of invasion or rebellion” and “when the public safety requires it”. We need not point out that COVID-19 which plagues our nation is far from qualifying as an invasion or a rebellion.As we cooperate with measures placed for all of our safety amidst this pandemic, we should also know our rights, be empowered, and stand guard against human rights abuses that may accompany a measure’s execution. That is why we in the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Human Rights proactively release infographs to aid every Filipino in knowing and protecting their rights.Human rights are for all of us, all the time; whoever we are and wherever we are from (Ban Ki-moon, 2014.) People fought and died for these rights. It is now our duty to defend it.References:

The 1987 Philippine Constitution, art. III, Sec. 15: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except in cases of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.”; see also art. VII, sec. 18(1).

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