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Philippines: Duterte's talk of martial law sparks fresh human rights worries

  • Duterte has said he may implement country-wide martial law to combat terrorism.
  • Many are worried the Philippine President could abuse his power under such a platform.

Should Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte implement nationwide martial law, as recently suggested, many fear an abuse of power as alleged political suppression and rights violations already dog his administration.

The southern island of Mindanao was placed under military rule Tuesday following an attack on Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, by the Maute Group — a local affiliate of the Islamic State who is lesser known than fellow homegrown network Abu Sayyef. Martial law could be extended nationwide should terrorism risks spread, Duterte told reporters on Wednesday after cutting short his Russian trip to deal with the Mindanao issue.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte walks past honor guards as he arrives at Manila international airport in Manila on May 24, 2017, after returning from a visit to Russia. Duterte threatened on May 24 to impose martial law in Mindanao to combat the rising threat of terrorism, after Islamist militants beheaded a policeman and took Catholic hostages while rampaging through a southern city.
NOEL CELIS / AFP / Getty Images
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte walks past honor guards as he arrives at Manila international airport in Manila on May 24, 2017, after returning from a visit to Russia. Duterte threatened on May 24 to impose martial law in Mindanao to combat the rising threat of terrorism, after Islamist militants beheaded a policeman and took Catholic hostages while rampaging through a southern city.

References are already being made to former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose 1972-1986 regime was characterized by martial law and synonymous with arbitrary arrests, detention, disappearances, as well as extrajudicial killings.

"Martial law is martial law," Duterte was quoted by media as saying on Wednesday. "It will not be any different from what Marcos did. I'd be harsh."

The president already faces widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings as well as silencing critics amid a campaign targeting drug users that has reportedly killed 7,000 to 8,000. And country-wide martial law could give Duterte a stronger platform to continue controversial policies unchecked, according to strategists.

"Giving more powers to a president who is already being accused of human rights violations certainly raises anxiety for some groups," stated Jean Franco, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines. "There are official statements from union leaders and rights groups expressing unease and a throwback to Marcos' martial law. The opposition in Congress has already expressed this."

Martial law would entail military control of movement, searches and arrest of detained people as well as suspension of writ of habeas corpus, defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana explained on Tuesday.

"The alarm is very justified," said Joseph Franco, research fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "Duterte has not even assuaged fears of Marcos-style martial law."

If Duterte does take action, it could lead to a decrease in political capital and foreign money, he continued. "The moment martial law is declared, investors will probably pack up. I think people overseas still remember how a lot of sequestrations occurred during the Marcos years."

Under the Philippines' 1987 Constitution, Congress must approve or revoke any presidential proclamation of martial law by majority vote but commentators doubt existing laws can restrain Duterte.

"Because the administration enjoys a super majority in Congress, I cannot say with great confidence that it can keep him in check," said Franco from the University of the Philippines.

"The coming days and weeks will see if the Philippine Congress and courts are up to the task of keeping a wildly abusive president in check. Since Duterte took office nearly a year ago, they haven't been," echoed James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch, in a recent statement.

Some have warned that martial law may not be the right tool to fight extremist threats, which were the catalyst for Duterte's Wednesday comments.

"We have to see what is the justification for extending martial law beyond the area of concern — Marawi City — considering the fact that the Mindano Western Command declared that the situation is fully under control," said Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at Manila's De La Salle University.

"The constitution provides alternative mechanisms, such as a state of emergency and state of lawlessness, that still gives the executive branch sufficient power to mobilize armed forces to deal with problems," Heydarian continued.

The basis of martial law is rebellion or invasion and to many people, the current situation does not fit that threshold, he noted.