COVID-19 Op-ed

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

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Anton Miguel A. SisonJuris
Doctor (Candidate), University of the Philippines (UP) College of
Law
Research 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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