Philippines: Martial Law Threatens Escalation of Abuses

(New York) – The Philippine government’s declaration of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao threatens to widen the scope of abuses under President Rodrigo Duterte, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 23, 2017, the Duterte administration declared martial law and suspended habeas corpus after the Islamist armed group Maute attacked Marawi City and killed three security force officers and burned several buildings, including a hospital and school. Maute fighters reportedly took a priest and several others hostage.

The imposition of martial law in the midst of Duterte’s “war on drugs,” in which more than 7,000 people have been killed since June, raises grave concerns of ever-widening human rights violations in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The day following the declaration, Duterte told the media, “Martial law is martial law. It will not be any different from what the president, [Ferdinand] Marcos did. I'd be harsh.” He later said that he “might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”

“Duterte’s martial law threatens military abuses in Mindanao that could rival the murderous ‘drug war’ in urban areas,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial that the country’s security forces abide by international law at all times and hold rights violators to account.”

Placing Mindanao under martial law empowers the Philippine military to supersede civilian authorities in enforcing the law. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the military will have “control of movement, searches and arrest of detained people, [and] suspension of writ of habeas corpus.” On May 24, the Department of National Defense appropriately issued a statement that all military personnel are “enjoined that the rule of law and human rights should prevail” wherever martial law is in effect.

In 1972, then-President Marcos imposed martial law and suspended habeas corpus throughout the Philippines, which facilitated widespread abuses by the military and other security forces, including detention without charge, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. These abuses did not end when martial law was lifted in early 1981. The 1987 Philippine Constitution, which was drafted after Marcos’s overthrow during “people power” revolution in 1986, places restrictions on the proclamation of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, as well as on their implementation.

Article VII, section 18 of the Constitution empowers the president in the event of “invasion or rebellion” to impose martial law and suspend habeas corpus for up to 60 days. A majority of members of both houses of Congress can revoke – or extend – the proclamation or suspension without the president’s approval.

Also under section 18, the Supreme Court may review a case brought by any citizen contesting the factual basis for martial law, and must hand down its decision within 30 days.

The Constitution also provides some important due process protections during martial law, Human Rights Watch said. A state of martial law does not suspend the Constitution, nor replace the functioning of the civil courts or Congress. It only permits military courts to try civilians when civil courts are unable to function. Suspension of habeas corpus applies only to people judicially charged for rebellion or offenses linked to invasion, and those arrested or detained must still be charged by the courts within three days or be released.

Maute and the Islamist armed group Abu Sayyaf threaten the security of people in parts of Mindanao, Human Rights Watch said. Both groups have pledged support to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). However, the imposition of martial law throughout Mindanao for at least 60 days could also affect the Philippine armed forces’ handling of other armed conflicts on the island, including with the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and various Moro insurgent groups.

Expanding the military’s legal authority in these conflicts opens the door to increased human rights violations against civilians, including leftist activists, indigenous leaders, and environmental activists, who have long been targets of military abuses.

“The Philippine government has a responsibility to protect the population from armed militants, but gaining the backing of affected people means abiding by the rule of law,” Kine said. “Martial law is not a free pass for abuse.”