Any enhanced powers amid COVID-19 must safeguard human rights

Amnesty International Philippines

Press Release

17 April 2020

Threats by President Rodrigo Duterte, including the possibility of a military take-over akin to “martial law” supposedly to enforce discipline, are deeply alarming. Any enhanced powers of police and the military during a time of emergency must always be necessary and proportionate, and in compliance with international human rights law, Amnesty International Philippines said today.

“Human rights have been restricted since the beginning of community quarantines in various parts of the country, and extended powers given to police and barangay officials have resulted in thousands being arrested and detained. Following his shoot-to-kill order against those who may cause trouble during this period, President Duterte has now threatened to impose what he described would be something like ‘martial law’,” said Amnesty International Philippines Director Butch Olano.   

“President Duterte’s warning that he will further extend police and military authority to respond to the pandemic, and possibly introduce a state of martial law, is worrying. Under the emergency legislation Bayanihan to Heal as One Act that is currently in effect, security forces already have wide powers to enforce the community quarantine,” Olano said.

While governments are allowed to impose emergency powers in exceptional circumstances, states must nevertheless ensure that respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law continue to prevail. Any extended power afforded to law enforcement agencies must be strictly proportionate, limited and necessary, and must be subject to periodic and meaningful review.

“Extra powers must go through procedural safeguards, and have the least possible negative impact on the human rights of millions of Filipinos who are struggling to survive under the enhanced community quarantine, including the rights to life, to fair trial, and to access basic needs, as well as the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” Olano said.

A state of emergency, including additional measures such as the imposition of a state of martial law, cannot be used to curtail key human rights.

Amnesty International Philippines has previously expressed concern over President Duterte’s pronouncements, which has led to sweeping restrictions on many basic freedoms, exacerbating the difficult situation of many poor Filipinos who have lost their means of livelihood.

“The government must focus on alleviating the plight of the poor and most at risk in this pandemic. The government has time and again asked people to obey the law. In the same vein, it must also protect and respect the people’s exercise of their fundamental rights,” said Olano. “This would go a long way in ensuring that all Filipinos are able to defend themselves against the threat of this virus.”


In a televised address on 16 April 2020, President Duterte said he may order a military and police takeover if people continue to flout movement restrictions in light of the community quarantine. “I’m just asking for your discipline. If you don’t want to, if you don’t believe [us], the police and the military will take over. I am ordering them now to be ready… It will be just like martial law. You have to choose,” Duterte said. 

On 1 April 2020, in another televised address, President Duterte admonished those who may cause ‘trouble’ during the imposition of the community quarantine amid the COVID 19 pandemic. Referring to the political left, but also seemingly others who may protest or question government measures, he openly gave orders to the police, military and local officials to shoot them dead saying, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, also the barangay, that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

Philippine National Police records show over 42,000 curfew violators have already been arrested in various regions in the country, including in Metro Manila, from 17-27 March. There have also been reports of inhuman punishments those breaching the quarantine have been made to endure, including sitting for hours in the hot sun or being detained in dog cages, as well as reports of sexual harassment by security forces at checkpoints.