[OPINION] Anticipating the aftermath of the pandemic through a human rights response

On March 27, 2020, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo made a statement defending President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointment of military men to lead the national policy against COVID-19. Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., former AFP Chief and current presidential adviser on the peace process was designated by Malacañang as Chief Implementer of the Philippines’ declared national policy to combat COVID-19. Former generals Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Secretary Eduardo Año are also part of the National Action Plan, as Chair and Vice Chair, respectively.

Panelo said that “We are in state of war against an unseen enemy and we need men and women trained in the art of warfare.” This pronouncement effectively affirms the military complexion and character of the Philippine government’s response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The rhetoric of “war” in the middle of the current pandemic is not unique to the Philippines. US President Donald Trump has dubbed himself a “wartime president” on a mission to defeat an enemy. 

Utilizing the language of conflict in the context of a global health crisis poses an additional threat to the stability of societies today and reveals a fundamental character of the present world – that governments have always been prepared to wage war, but less so to deal with crises in peacetime. Placing the use of force at the forefront of a response might also likely result in consequences such as an increase in human rights violations and the disruption of the fabric of society. 

“We need the PNP and the military as they have the discipline, the organization, the manpower, and the equipments to implement the measures that the government has established,” Panelo further stated. With its monopoly of coercive force, the police and military must continue to discharge their role as duty-bearers of human rights. 

The Bayanihan To Heal As One Act, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte last March 24, 2020, has effectively placed the Philippines under a state of emergency through a law. United Nations experts have advised that in the use of emergency powers by States, they must endeavor to prevent “excessive powers to become hardwired into legal and political systems” by making restrictions “narrowly tailored and should be the least intrusive means to protect public health.” This means the use of methods that are “proportionate, necessary, and non-discriminatory” to contain the spread of the virus.

However, various accounts of alleged abuse and violations committed by police and military have already cropped up in social media since the implementation of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine. These violations range from arbitrary deprivation of liberty to gender-based harassment. If left unchecked and unabated, these patterns of abuse might give rise to yet another trend of large-scale human rights violations in the Philippines. (READ: Over 17,000 coronavirus lockdown violators arrested in PH)

An important question now that needs to be asked is: where will we find ourselves in the aftermath of the pandemic in terms of human rights? It might not be far off that with the use of “waging war” as a rhetoric, social and political structures of today would have to adapt and change like those in post-conflict societies. 

While untested for situations of natural calamities and disasters, the framework of transitional justice might provide important insights on steps moving forward. Transitional justice refers to the full range of judicial and non-judicial measures carried out to deal with a legacy of human rights abuses for societies under transformation and transition. Such measures include truth commissions, prosecutions, memorialization, and institutional reform. A society that has been exposed to collective trauma will have to find itself carrying, hopefully, a shared learning of lessons of the past. 

As we are in the middle of an unpredictable situation and our institutions operate in crisis mode, it is up to advocates and practitioners in the field of human rights to take up the mantle of hypervigilance for the preservation of rights and monitoring of abuses. Practices and learnings from the government’s so-called war on drugs could be useful, for instance, in terms of preserving collective memory and documenting violations of human rights. Whatever we will learn from these efforts will help us map out politically, legally, and socially our next steps into the future. Additionally, it will help keep track on who has to be accountable once we find ourselves facing a radically changed society. (READ: CHR says U.N. resolution vs drug war 'opportunity' to improve PH situation)

An analogous application of the mechanisms used by transitioning societies could also help inform and recalibrate the future of humanitarian responses for segments of the population that will be hit hardest by the pandemic. Such responses should be crafted with precision and sensitivity to the needs of those who will be affected. The mechanisms could also be expanded not just to address abuses of civil and political rights, but also to ensure the State’s continued fulfillment of its duty to secure economic, social, and cultural rights.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that with respect to responses to COVID-19, “Human dignity and rights need to be front and center in that effort, not an afterthought.” Society will be tested as it heeds the call to uphold dignity and rights. More than ever, commitments to such principles must remain firm and steady – for in the aftermath of the crisis, our very humanity could be at stake. – Rappler.com

Ross Tugade is a lawyer in the human rights sector and a graduate student of law focusing on transnational crime and justice.