HomeCommentaryPandemic is no excuse to ignore human rights

Pandemic is no excuse to ignore human rights

True or false?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, governments can do whatever they like to bring the highly infectious disease under control.

Take it from the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres: States cannot use the coronavirus outbreak to set aside human rights.

“Against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a pushback against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic …. This is unacceptable,” Guterres said recently.

And more: “Civic space and press freedom are critical. Civil society organizations and the private sector have essential roles to play. And in all we do, let’s never forget: The threat is the virus, not people.”

We agree completely with his position that authoritarian governments should not weaponize the pandemic to subvert human rights.

With COVID-19 ravaging many nations, governments have resorted to lockdowns with severe travel restrictions, and citizens ordered to stay-at-home and to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease.

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In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has announced a second extension of the enhanced community quarantine that ends on April 30 for another two weeks, from May 1 to 15.

Whether this would be extended further after May 15 is up in the air, as this would depend on a marked decrease in COVID-19 incidence in two weeks.

Before this second extension, however, Duterte raised the stakes on his “take-no-prisoners” policy he had earlier applied in his bloody war on illegal drugs by threatening to call on the military to augment already heavy police presence in checkpoints.

He has described this as a “martial law-type” deployment to deter people from violating restrictions already in place.

Which did not take long to happen, because heavily armed soldiers soon began to be deployed in police checkpoints.

Today, camouflaged troops wielding high-powered rifles work hand-in-hand with equally camouflaged police operatives to check the quarantine passes of motorists and pedestrians. Those caught without quarantine passes and cannot produce ID cards indicating that they work in establishments deemed essential, such as groceries, banks, pharmacies and banks, among others, are arrested and detained and would even be charged in court with lockdown violations.

This is nothing less than de facto martial law in the country at present, sending chills of apprehension down the spines of those who see it as reminiscent of the martial law imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 that lasted until his downfall in 1986.

Two cases of killings in checkpoints highlight the severity of the draconian measures of the Duterte administration.

On April 21, a police officer fatally shot a former soldier at a quarantine checkpoint. Police Master Sergeant Daniel Florendo shot Winston Ragos, a retired soldier. The cop claimed he thought Ragos was pulling out a gun from his bag after a shouting match near the checkpoint at a village in Quezon City.

However, a witness said the victim did not have a gun inside his bag and only carried his quarantine pass. But police said they recovered a .38 caliber pistol from Ragos’ bag.

Ragos’ mother said her 34-year-old son had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been dealing with mental health issues.

The chief of the National Police defended Florendo, saying the police officer exercised a “judgment call” at the scene, as he assumed that Ragos tried to draw his firearm.

Even as the case is now under investigation, the Philippine Army gave Ragos full military honors during his burial on April 26, in what appears to be a move that somehow casts doubt on the police version of the killing.

Earlier in the month, a 63-year-old man in Agusan del Norte province in Mindanao was killed by police in a checkpoint after he was accosted for not wearing a face mask. According to the police, the man, who was believed to have been drunk, attacked local officials with a scythe. A police officer who was trying to subdue the man opened fire, killing him.

The incident happened the day after Duterte said in a press conference that he had ordered the police and military to shoot perceived troublemakers amid the coronavirus outbreak: “My orders to the police and the military, if anyone creates trouble, and their lives are in danger: Shoot them dead.”

The two lockdown killings, as well as various instances of excessive punishment of lockdown violators, underscore the very real need for Philippine authorities to exercise restraint and observe constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. More than this, they should be reminded that they should respect the sanctity of human life. Human rights cannot be conveniently shelved amid frantic efforts to save lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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