COVID-19 Op-ed

Justice-Oriented Approaches to Pandemic-Related Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines

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Ross
TugadeA lawyer in the human rights sector and is a Master of Laws
student with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research
Institute. The views reflected in this piece are solely of the
author’s.

Within days from the passage of the Republic Act No. 11469, or
the
Bayanihan to Heal as One Act
that statutorily declares a state of emergency
and grants Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers, the
executive branch of the Philippine government was quick to defend its choice
in designating retired military officials in charge of controlling the
Covid-19 pandemic. This line of decision-making ought to alert everyone to
the possible challenges that may emerge in the realm of respecting,
protecting, and fulfilling fundamental rights and freedoms. Gaps in the
Philippine government’s approach—especially in reference to human rights—have
to be necessarily filled by a perspective that factors in justice.

By characterizing the present emergency as a
state of war against an unseen enemy”  and thus justifying the leadership role
taken by ex-military officers, the executive effectively confirmed the
militarized approach of the government to a public health crisis. In
utilizing conflict-loaded language in this situation, a challenge to
peacetime stability of society arises. A sustained militarized approach from
the government poses problems in the enforcement of the State’s human rights
obligations in the immediate context, as well as in confronting questions of
justice in the long run.

Various
reports of law enforcement or local government abuse in Metro Manila and
other parts of Luzon island have come to light after the imposition of
restrictive measures on the freedom of movement. Another distinct feature of
R.A. No. 11469, penalizing the spread of false information related to the
pandemic, could also be a potential source of violations of the fundamental
right to free speech and expression.

With “waging war” in combatting the pandemic
going beyond a mere metaphor in the Philippines, the human rights sector must
be ready to anticipate a surge in the number of violations committed in the
name of protecting public health. The recent experience of the country with
the Duterte administration’s controversial war on drugs should yield valuable
insights for the human rights community at this point, and should be
applicable to yet another emerging pattern of large-scale human rights
violations. For instance, there should be sustained efforts at recording
reports of abuses.

Analogously
using the tools associated with the substantive field of transitional justice
could aid in anticipating the human rights crisis borne out of highly
draconian State measures. Transitional justice “consists of both judicial and
non-judicial processes and mechanisms, including prosecution initiatives,
facilitating initiatives in respect of the right to truth, delivering
reparations, institutional reform and national consultations” and must conform
to international legal standards and obligations.

Such justice-oriented mechanisms are implemented
in societies transitioning from conflict or a previous regime with a legacy
of human rights abuses. While the traditional application of transitional
justice is limited in its scope, there is potential in looking at the
concepts of truth-telling, accountability, reparations, and institutional
reform in the aftermath of Covid-19. The relevance of transitional justice
approaches is especially magnified, given the nexus of the State’s
conceptualization of conflict as applied in the pandemic and an emerging
pattern of State abuse of power. A transitional justice approach might also
provide a handle in thinking about State responsibility in the international
plane. Further, it could inform how we treat violations of rights other than
civil and political rights, so as to include relevant economic or social
rights.

Vulnerable communities
like the poor, the disabled, or family members left behind must be provided
with ample legal, social, and economic protection. For instance, legal
accountability against government abuse must be guaranteed, coupled with
restitution, compensation, or satisfaction. Their narratives, more
importantly, must be preserved and perpetuated through human rights
documentation in order to inform future human rights interventions. At any
rate, restoring dignity should be at the heart of any institutional mechanism
moving forward.

In the middle of
these extraordinary times, the response demanded from those holding the line
for human rights and the rule of law should be both creative and critical.
Human rights, after all, retain their importance and primacy even in times of
great public emergencies.

References:

Republic Act No. 11469 https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2020/03/24/republic-act-no-11469/

On the raison d ‘etre on the
President’s appointment of ex-military men to lead the implementation of the
national Policy against Covid-19.
https://pcoo.gov.ph/OPS-content/on-the-raison-d-etre-on-the-presidents-appointment-of-ex-military-men-to-lead-the-implementation-of-the-national-policy-against-covid-19/

Guidance Note of the UN Secretary General on United Nations Approach
to Transitional Justice
, https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/TJ_Guidance_Note_March_2010FINAL.pdf 

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