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Limit the use of emergency powers to fight COVID-19

Graphic: Deserted street in Manila, Philippines

The Commission has stressed that upholding the human rights of the people should never be compromised, even in critical times.

Much has to be discovered about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). With little known information about its cure, this pandemic continues to challenge healthcare systems around the world, such as in the Philippines. The task before our government is to ensure that interventions can cope with the rate of infections; thereby curbing its spread and saving the population from critical illness.

We recognise that moves to declare a state of national emergency, which consequently grants emergency powers to the President, has been proposed as a more aggressive measure than placing Luzon under enhanced community quarantine and the entire country under a state of calamity.

Difficulties of this scale call for swift and reasonable solutions. We note the eagerness of the government to address this health crisis once and for all by mustering its power and resources. The Commission on Human Rights, however, reminds the government that it must do so with the proper guidance of the law and the principles of human rights.

While the character of the COVID-19 pandemic satisfies a criterion for granting emergency powers, the 1987 Constitution in Article VI, Section 23(2) clarifies that such exercise of authority shall only be for a limited period.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by the Philippines, also reminds the government that exceptions pertaining to the restriction of freedoms and other special application of human rights standards during emergencies are limited "to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation."

Graphic: COVID-19 banner

Emergency powers then cannot be indefinite—or be determined by the persistence of a calamity—lest it becomes a norm rather than an exception. Such arrangement also assumes a well-defined plan of action which may be possible by the granting of emergency powers.

In a democracy, the goal of governance is to balance interests and preserve rights. The 1987 Constitution even defines three branches of government, independent and co-equal with each other, to ensure that there are limits and inherent checks to the exercise of power.

Hence, in emergencies, there must be a certain amount of faith granted to the President, but the power should not be absolute. It must be noted that laws, most especially the Constitution, do not function to curtail the exercise of power, but compels officials to navigate through national concerns and issues only within the bounds of law so as to prevent any error or abuse detrimental to the country and the people.

While this health crisis needs to be responded with urgency, we cannot use urgency to compromise sound government principles and other rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Granting absolute power may be vulnerable to abuse. Laws are our best defence against excesses. We join the country in hoping for a solution that will help us heal and recover from the damage of the virus. But, as we move forward, we continue to stress that what is at stake are human rights of the people that should never be compromised, even in critical times.

Date: 24 March 2020

Source: Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines

Image credits

  1. Deserted street in Manila, Philippines - Elden Vince Isidro on Unsplash
  2. COVID-19 banner - Martin Sanchez Tzoe on Unsplash