Chief Justice Sereno speaks up on martial law declaration

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 26 2017 04:03 PM | Updated as of May 27 2017 04:55 AM

 'If properly implemented, martial law declaration won't be a burden' 

MANILA- While strict compliance with the Constitution would spare the nation from abuses under martial law, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Friday called on graduates of the Ateneo de Manila University to "make a stand" against the rising "culture of impunity" and "blatant threats" facing fundamental rights and freedoms. 

Speaking in graduation rites of her alma mater, Sereno for the first time publicly addressed President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law in Mindanao, citing constitutional protection against the feared repeat of horrors the country experienced under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos' martial rule. 

"When properly implemented, this (martial law declaration) should not by itself unduly burden our country," Sereno, an appointee of then-President Benigno Aquino, said.

Whether or not Duterte's martial law declaration over Mindanao--
prompted by gunfights between government troops and the terrorist Maute group in Marawi City on Tuesday--would lead to abuses "depends" on whether government branches would ensure fidelity to the Constitution and on public vigilance. 

"If President Duterte and the aforementioned government authorities avoid the gross historical sins of Mister Marcos and his agents, then our country might reap the benefits of the legitimate use of the provisions on Martial Law in the 1987 Constitution," said Sereno. 

She said the 1987 Constitution in "clear and unmistakable language rejects and absolutely prohibits the particular kind of martial law that began in our country in September of 1972," in reference to the wrongdoings under Marcos' rule.

Still, she urged graduates to take action against a pervading "culture, a pattern" of "apathy, rage, and despair." 

"As we face the days following President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, it behooves us to ask what we can do in the present, with the time that is given to us, to ensure that the horrors of martial law that followed the 1972 declaration do not happen again," Sereno said in her commencement address Friday morning. 

"Given the present day, when the possibility of history repeating itself looms imminent, no cause requires your commitment as much as the cause of human rights, justice, and democracy, themes you have aptly chosen," said Sereno. 

The Chief Justice, who finished her economics degree at the Ateneo in 1980 when the country was under the Marcos dictatorship, discarded a "more lighthearted and general" speech on justice and democracy she had originally prepared for event, given recent developments. 

Her remarks also made an indirect reference to the killings resulting from the Duterte administration's war on drugs. 

"...[T]oday, people’s fundamental human rights and freedoms, the core of our democracy, face grave and blatant threats. The culture of impunity is on the rise. People are pressured to favor the easy choice over the right choice: expediency over due process; convenient labeling over fairness; the unlawful termination of human life over rehabilitation," said Sereno. 

"You need to make a stand, dear Ateneans. And to make a stand you must act. More than merely ruminating on the idea of justice, I call on each of you to confront the common injustices of our society and seek to address them. I urge you to speak out with truth even against the overwhelming tide of popular opinion and reach out to the oppressed and disenfranchised," she said. 

The chief magistrate further urged the graduates to "give your all to protect our nation and our people."

Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano defended the administration's war on drugs before the United Nations, denying the spate of extrajudicial killings as he explained that police only defended themselves in cases where drug suspects ended up dead in police operations. 

He also told the world body that there was no new wave of killings, saying there was a low of 11,000 and a high of 16,000 killings annually under the Aquino administration. 

Comparably, he said there were 2,692 deaths from presumed legitimate anti-drug police operations and 9,432 homicide cases in the first 9 months of the Duterte administration. -- With a report from Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News