‘We are not at war:’ Rights advocates push back vs ‘militaristic’ approach in COVID-19 fight

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 19 2020 09:48 AM

A line forms at a checkpoint between Marikina City and Antipolo, Rizal on Holy Monday, April 6, 2020, amid the start of the lockdown of Rizal Province to curb the spread of COVID-19. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – More than a month since President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire mainland of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), rights advocates say the Philippine government is using the wrong ‘militaristic’ approach in addressing the threat of the coronavirus disease or COVID-19.

“We are not at war. We are in a state of defending a life with dignity of peoples and communities,” Dr. Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and executive director of Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights) said during an online press conference Friday.

Organized by rights groups PAHRA and In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), the presscon was meant to gauge the government’s response to the pandemic.

Simbulan said it is dangerous to use war as a metaphor in the fight against COVID-19 because it highlights reliance on the armed forces and on state violence as key instruments in addressing the pandemic. 

“In a state of war, there is no room for questioning, there is no room for doubting, officials of the military would say. General attitude should be to follow because that will ensure order and instability in society,” she said.

“Kaya ganyan, pag may mga pasaway, paluin mo, parusahan mo. I-torture mo sila. Gumamit ka ng kamay na bakal dahil doon mo lang sila mapapasunod,” she explained, referring to Duterte’s various statements in different speeches during the lockdown.

(That’s why if there are violators, the order is to hit them, punish them, torture them, use iron fist because that’s the only way you can forced them to comply.)

Since the Luzon-wide lockdown was imposed last month, police and military personnel have been highly visible in checkpoints and have actively apprehended quarantine violators.

The Philippine National Police said more than a hundred thousand quarantine violators have been arrested while close to 3,000 remain in detention.

Among those charged were 21 residents of Quezon City who were arrested for holding a protest action to complain about the lack of food assistance from the local government.

Simbulan said there have been various reports of human rights violations, including a police officer caught on video hitting a quarantine violator.

She said this is the result of what she called the “DOM approach” or the dole-out and militaristic approach.

President Rodrigo Duterte had recently threatened to resort to a martial law-like lockdown while leaving the distribution of food and social amelioration in the care of local government units.

“Because of the failure of the State to use the rights-based approach and to come up with a comprehensive, integrated plan to address the COVID pandemic, talagang ito ay hindi kataka-takang humantong sa mga paglabag sa mga karapatang pantao (it is not baffling that this has led to violations of human rights,” Simbulan said.

Assessing the government response to the pandemic, former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te of the Free Legal Assistance Group said: “Medyo may pagkukulang, kasi ang pananaw lang ay (the government response is pretty lacking because the point of view is limited to that of) law and order.”

“Tulungan rather than parusahan. Ang nangyayari kasi ngayon, ang template is, pag hindi ka sumunod, parusa kaagad. At hindi rin naman ginagawan ng paraan para makasunod yung ibang mga tao,” he said.

(Government should help, not punish. What’s happening is that the template is, if you don’t comply, you get punished. But the government is not making any effort to help people comply with the restrictions.

“On record yan na maraming di makasakay, marami sa mga frontliners natin naglalakad papunta sa mga ospital na pinagtatrabahuan nila, nahihirapan sa checkpoints, pumipila nang matagal sa checkpoints.”

(That’s on the record that many could not find a ride, some frontliners walk to get to the hospitals they work for, some have difficulty getting through or lining up for quite some time at checkpoints.)

In a statement Friday, London-based Amnesty International and its Philippine section expressed alarm over Duterte’s threat of a possible military take-over similar to “martial law” to enforce discipline among Filipino who continue to defy the ECQ.

“President Duterte’s warning that he will further extend police and military authority to respond to the pandemic, and possibly introduce a state of martial law, is worrying. Under the emergency legislation Bayanihan to Heal as One Act that is currently in effect, security forces already have wide powers to enforce the community quarantine,” said Amnesty International Philippines Director Butch Olano.

“Extra powers must go through procedural safeguards, and have the least possible negative impact on the human rights of millions of Filipinos who are struggling to survive under the enhanced community quarantine, including the rights to life, to fair trial, and to access basic needs, as well as the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” he explained.

Globally, more than 30 United Nations special rapporteurs and independent experts have called on governments around the world not to use COVID-19 security measures as an excuse to resort to the use of excessive force.

"Even during states of emergency, the use of force remains guided by the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution. They demand that the use of force and of firearms must be avoided, and that all possible non-violent means must be exhausted before resorting to violent ones," they said in a statement released Friday in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Breaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force,” they added.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

Rather than focus on law enforcement, Dr. Nemuel Fajutagana of the Medical Action Group said the Philippine government should strive towards mass testing to track the spread of the virus.

He noted that the Philippine has only conducted around 48,000 tests in a month compared to South Korea which did 20,000 tests a day at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in their country.

The implication, he said, is that many could be walking around spreading the virus, or worse, could have died without even having been tested for COVID-19.

“Napakahalaga talaga ng testings kasi kung magde-decide ka na mag-eextend ng quarantine o mag-o-open uli ng ating mga communities, dapat malinaw yung ating datos,” he said.

(Testings are really important when deciding whether or not to extend the quarantine or to open the communities. Your data should be clear.)

“Siguruhin muna natin na kung mag-eextend tayo ay nasasagot natin ang batayang-pangangailangan lalo ng ating vulnerable sector,” he added.

(Let’s make sure that if we extend, we could cover the basic necessities of the vulnerable sector.)

Amnesty International echoed this call.

“The government must focus on alleviating the plight of the poor and most at risk in this pandemic. The government has time and again asked people to obey the law. In the same vein, it must also protect and respect the people’s exercise of their fundamental rights,” said Olano. “This would go a long way in ensuring that all Filipinos are able to defend themselves against the threat of this virus.”

UN experts, meanwhile, reminded governments around the world to think about the effects on the groups hardest hit by the virus of the ensuing government response.

"You can't stay home if you don't have one. You can't remain confined if you don't have what you need to feed your family. How do you 'physically distance' in an urban slum? How do you eat or drink when you are a daily-wage laborer and need to go out every day to earn the money to do so?,” they asked.

“For millions of people, emergency measures can be a more direct threat to their life, livelihood, and dignity than even the virus itself,” they warned.