Human rights in a public health emergency | Inquirer Opinion

Human rights in a public health emergency

/ 05:02 AM April 25, 2020

Like a number of governments around the world, the Philippine government has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by declaring a state of public health emergency. The government imposed limitations to certain rights such as the freedom of movement and freedom of expression, raising fears that this might cause the further erosion of the rule of law and democracy in the country.

A state of emergency per se is not inconsistent with international human rights law. The human rights paradigm, which has sometimes been perceived by its critics as lacking the practicality of being widely applicable in the real world, is actually quite pragmatic and envisions situations like the one we are facing now.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a party, provides for the possibility of limiting certain rights in the interests of public health, and in the most extreme cases, derogating from certain rights during states of emergency, to the extent strictly necessary to meet a threat to the life of the nation.

As part of emergency measures, the Philippine government imposed a nationwide lockdown that severely limits the freedom of movement of everyone in the country. The right to freedom of expression is also limited, since the law that was passed declaring the emergency imposes a punishment of imprisonment of two months or a fine of not more than P1 million (approximately $19,600) on persons found to have been “spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms.”


The rights to freedom of movement and freedom of opinion and expression are two of the rights that may be limited under international law, but there are still parameters that must be followed. Limitations on these rights must be interpreted strictly in favor of the right always, and should not be construed so as to defeat the essence of the rights involved. Furthermore and very important in the Philippine context, the limitations should not be abused or applied in an arbitrary manner.

Ever since the lockdown started, there have been reports of how severe limitations on movement are being abused by government authorities, especially to harass activists and those allegedly connected to armed rebel groups. For instance, Felipe Levy Gelle Jr. reported several visits in his home by the military after the lockdown started. Gelle Jr., a member of a human rights group in Negros, is among those who called for an investigation into the death of Benjamin Ramos, a lawyer who assisted the families of the nine farmers murdered in Sagay City last year.

Some local officials, who have been tasked to implement the rules on community quarantine, are also abusing their powers during the emergency. Some local officials have allegedly been subjecting people to ill-treatment when they violate lockdown rules. For instance, a barangay captain in the province of Pampanga was reported to have forced LGBT individuals to do lewd acts in public, and in some parts of Manila, those who violated lockdown rules were kept in dog cages.

These forms of “punishment” are definitely degrading as they are extremely humiliating and are aimed to debase a person beyond that which is usual. The prohibition against torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is absolute and cannot be subject to derogation, even in times of emergency.

On the right to freedom of opinion and expression, there have been reports of several activists and journalists who have been either threatened or harassed by the authorities for criticizing publicly the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, barangay officials threatened to press libel charges against a student journalist, Joshua Molo, for the views he expressed online. By going after those who express critical views of the government, authorities are casting a chilling effect on freedom of expression and possibly impeding information that may be crucial in effectively addressing this crisis. Indeed, the right to freedom of expression may be limited during times of emergency, but the limitations on this right should not be interpreted so as to defeat the right itself. If the Philippine authorities are genuinely concerned about rampant disinformation, the best way to address this is counter-speech.

President Duterte’s language during his regular press conferences does not help the situation. The manner by which he is addressing this public health crisis is no different from how he continues to pursue his murderous “war on drugs.” In one of his speeches, instead of discouraging the use of force and calling for the peaceful deescalation of tensions during protests through dialogue and negotiation, he told police to unlawfully shoot protesters who “cause trouble” during this emergency. Instead of calming the nation and giving clear direction on how the government must work in a lawful and rights-compliant manner during this crisis, his speeches cause further anxiety and confusion among the people.

Moreover, instead of letting public health professionals take the lead in addressing this crisis, President Duterte appointed military officers to implement the National Action Plan on curbing the spread of COVID-19. This shows that the Duterte administration still intends to rely on brute force and opaque decision-making processes to manage this crisis, instead of leaning on sound public health policies and transparent governance.


The Philippines is facing a long and difficult path in getting to the other side of this public health emergency. What is clear right now is that more human rights violations will not help the country. The survival of the nation will depend on protecting the rights of the people and holding on fiercely to the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Emerlynne Gil is a Filipino lawyer and a senior international legal advisor of the International Commission of Jurists, a global organization of judges and lawyers dedicated to protecting human rights and upholding the rule of law.

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TAGS: coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, health, ICCPR, lockdown, pandemic, Quarantine
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