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Rights groups wary of president’s martial law threats

Human rights groups raised the alarm on President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement of a possible declaration of martial law. The president, on April 23, threatened to impose a nationwide martial law to deter alleged communist attacks on government efforts involved in Covid-19 operations.

The civil libertarians’ group Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) expressed serious doubts on Duterte’s agenda. It believes he is only using the communist threats and alleged attacks on government troops as pretext for his authoritarian intentions.

MAT said that there is no legal or moral basis for Duterte to declare martial law at this time. Instead, it advised the president to just exert more efforts to combat the pandemic.

“Government’s attention, energy and resources should be focused on health measures to contain Covid-19 and mitigate the impacts of such health measures,” it said.

Rather than spewing accusations, MAT challenged Duterte to formalize his concerns through existing mechanisms under the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

Human rights watchdog Karapatan has also strongly denounced Duterte’s threat of martial law, calling it as “draconian and militarist measures” fated to fail in addressing the health crisis. Karapatan’s Cristina Palabay said martial law will only set the stage for more attacks on people’s rights and civil liberties.

Palabay also denounced Duterte for singling out and tagging Karapatan as a communist “legal front.”

“Its implications are evidently clear: Duterte is singling out human rights organization like Karapatan to deflect accountability from the abuses of authority borne from his militarist and violent pronouncements as well his neglect of the people’s welfare in general, and to herald a witchhunt of human rights workers in the country,” Palabay said.

Rather than using the Left as scapegoats for mismanaging the outbreak, Karapatan said that the government should focus on addressing the “people’s legitimate demands for mass testing, the protection of health workers, and responding to the socioeconomic needs of the poor and the marginalized.”

The church-based Ramento Project for Rights Defenders (RPRD) equally expressed strong opposition to Duterte’s martial law threats. It believes that the imposition of military rule amid the Covid19 pandemic will not serve the nation’s interests and the people’s urgent needs for health and social services.

RPRD’s executive director Fr. Jonash Joyohoy said that the president is wrong to shift his government’s attention to military operations and pick a fight with the communists, saying it will downplay the reality of the pandemic as a national emergency.

“What we want the government to do, instead, is focus all its efforts on ending the spread of the pandemic and responsibly deal with the pressing questions of public health and providing social relief to the most vulnerable,” Johohoy said.

RPRD said Duterte’s repeated threats to impose martial law should be taken seriously. Placing the entire country under martial law will simply open the flood gates for unbridled human rights violations and abuses, Joyohoy believes.

“A few days back, he was flaunting a martial law-like crackdown against perceived quarantine violators which brutish enforcement has already yielded its first human fatality. It is not far-fetched that human rights violations would mount dramatically should a nationwide martial law is imposed,” the priest said.

The ecumenical organization Promotion of Church People’s Rights-Panay (PCPR-Panay) in the Visayas has also decried Duterte’s plan to declare martial law. The group said the president’s plan is to establish a “reign of terror.”

PCPR-Panay Chairperson Rev. Fr. Marco Sulayao said that Duterte seems to have deliberately overlooked the point that the pandemic is a health and not a peace and order problem.

“Duterte’s bluster betrays his inability to comprehend the complex situation brought about by the COVID-19 contagion in the country. One need not be a ‘rocket scientist’ to understand that fighting the pandemic is a health problem, not a peace and order problem. Duterte thinks he can solve problems through a reign of terror, like the tens of thousands victims of extra-judicial killing in his fake anti-drug war,” Sulayao said in a statement.

The group believes that with martial law, funds that are needed and which can be used to provide medical services and relief assistance to people detained in their houses due to lockdown will be diverted to military mobilizations.

“With martial law, limited resources needed in easing the hunger of majority of Filipinos detained in their houses due to ECQ, mass testing, quarantine centers among others will be diverted to buy more bullets, bombs to kill Filipinos. This will weaken our health intervention and support to people impacted by ECQ, and will aggravate social unrest,” the priest said.

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