Sereno calls for vigilance vis-à-vis martial law

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 26 2017 10:12 PM | Updated as of May 27 2017 04:01 AM

'Today, rights and freedoms face blatant threats,' says Chief Justice 

(UPDATE) 'Impunity is on the rise. People’s fundamental human rights and freedoms are under threat. The public is pressured to favor killings over [drug] rehabilitation.'

These are some of the strong words that came from Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno as she delivered her commencement speech before graduates of Ateneo de Manila University, in a speech dubbed “The Atenean Facing Martial Law,” on Friday.

The chief magistrate, herself an Atenean, said she had prepared a different speech but decided to change it in the wake of the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao.

President Duterte signed Proclamation 216 last May 23 hours after local armed group Maute group attacked civilian populations, establishments, and installations in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.

Sereno gave the graduating class a lesson in history, as she described Martial Law under President Ferdinand Marcos, declared on September 21, 1972, as a period "characterized by widespread human rights violations in the form of murders, rape and other forms of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and illegal detention, and forced isolation or hamletting of villages;” "characterized by its heretofore unprecedented scale of plunder;” "extremely oppressive, concentrating power only in Mister Marcos and his group;” and "put the Philippines in an economic tailspin that saw us go from the second most vibrant economy in Asia to its sick man.”

Given the experience under Marcos’ martial rule, Sereno said “the fears stoked by the terms 'Martial Law' and 'suspension of the writ of habeas corpus,' are therefore not surprising." 

Sereno said the public must do its part to ensure that these do not happen again in the present martial rule in the southern Philippine region.

"We know what happened. Marcos failed our people. Those of us who were alive at the time bore witness to the human rights atrocities and the corruption caused by such absolute power… 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.

"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,” Sereno told the graduates.

She went on, in her boldest yet, to describe the present state of affairs which was nothing short of criticizing the present dispensation.

“Today, 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,” Sereno said.


"Will this Martial Law declaration bring back the human rights violations and the depredations that characterized the martial law regime of 1972?"

"Will investors leave the country?"

"Will young people still have enough good jobs?"

"Will our labor force be squeezed into more painful contortions of diaspora?"

"Will our voices still be heard?"

Sereno said she knew her audience had those questions in mind following the state of Martial Law in Mindanao.

Her answer: “It depends.”

"Our hopes for the future depend on whether the Executive Department, led by the President, the leadership and the entirety of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, Department of Justice officials and prosecutors, the Chief Public Attorney and her public defenders will take sufficient care to abide by the Constitution and the laws even while Martial Law is in place. It depends on whether there will be abuse of the awesome powers that Martial Law gives the Armed Forces and the police.

"It also depends on whether Congress and the Supreme Court will exercise their review powers appropriately over the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of writ of habeas corpus; and whether both houses of Congress and all courts will continue to function normally and well. It also depends on whether certain independent constitutional bodies, namely the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, and the Commission on Audit will persist in discharging their proper functions," she said.

To her audience, Sereno issued a challenge, calling on them "to confront the common injustices of our society and seek to address them… speak out with truth even against the overwhelming tide of popular opinion and reach out to the oppressed and disenfranchised …[and] [g]ive your all to protect our nation and our people.”

“[I]t depends on whether you, my fellow Ateneans, together with the rest of the Filipino population, do your part to ensure that this

declaration of Martial Law does not imperil your future... One Big Fight!” Sereno said.


Acknowledging that the powers to declare Martial Law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus are expressly granted President Duterte under the Constitution, Sereno said "the Martial Law power is an immense power that can be used for good, to solve defined emergencies; but all earthly powers when abused can result in oppression."

"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,” Sereno said.

Sereno said “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.

"These are times when everything that can be shaken is being shaken, when institutions are being challenged to their very foundations, and basic ideas of decency and human dignity are being violated with great impunity. These are times more than any other that will sorely test the Atenean’s capacity to distinguish right from wrong and the Atenean’s ability to act in service of what is right, and true, and good,” Sereno said.

Sereno’s speech came ahead of any petition filed with the SC to question Mr. Duterte’s bases in resorting to the extraordinary power, and absent any complaint, so far, of abuse on the part of state forces implementing the president’s proclamation.

Under Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution, the SC "may review, in an appropriate proceeding filed by any citizen, the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or the extension thereof, and must promulgate its decision thereon within thirty days from its filing.”


Unlike Sereno, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the mandatory organization for lawyers in the country, in a statement released on May 24, expressed support for the declaration of Martial Law, stressing that it "supports all legal means to end this unrest in Mindanao and encourage the achievement of peace through lawful means."

The IBP said it was premature to question the declaration, for now.

"In view of what has happened in Marawi City, the imminent danger of the escalation and spread of the hostilities to other parts of Mindanao, and the existence of other terrorist groups operating in

Mindanao that can take advantage of the unrest and cause criminal acts and disorder, the national leadership of the IBP sees no reason to question the declaration at this time.

"The public may rest assured that the Constitution is very clear on the fact that the declaration will not result to any diminution of their rights and that civil and judicial authorities will continue to

function except in places where the continuation of such functions has been rendered difficult,” the IBP said.