CJ Sereno commencement speech: In wake of Martial Law declaration, defend human rights, justice, democracy

May 27, 2017 - 4:05 PM
CJ Sereno ADMU commencement
Chief Justice Sereno.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno reminded the youth on Friday, May 26, of the “dark and terrible times” that ensued after the declaration of Martial Law by former President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972, urging them to champion the cause of human rights, justice, and democracy as the threat of history repeating itself looms.

This was in the light of the recent declaration of martial law in Mindanao.

Sereno was the speaker at the graduation ceremony of the Ateneo de Manila University’s class of 2017, where she delivered a speech titled “The Atenean Facing Martial Law”.

She acknowledged that the country’s direction depended on the government’s actions after President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law in Mindanao in the wake of the fighting between the terrorist Maute Group and government forces that erupted on Tuesday.

Of the ‘invasion or rebellion’ circumstances allowed in the Constitution for the declaration of Martial Law, the Chief Justice noted: There may be questions before the Supreme Court regarding whether this can be extended to encompass situations akin to invasion or rebellion, and what circumstances constitute rebellion…

She recalled how she stood in their place 37 years ago, a time when Martial Law under Marcos was still in place, feeling at once optimistic and afraid. While she was excited about her career prospects, she was also fearful, “lest the long nights of Martial Law overshadowing our country never end.”

Sereno quoted former Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee as describing the night Marcos announced the declaration of Martial Law as “a dark evening when military authorities moved throughout the city to arrest and detain journalists and members of the opposition upon orders of the president-turned-dictator. Over the next decades, enemies of the Marcos regime disappeared, were tortured, or summarily executed.”

Sereno cited excerpts from decisions of the Supreme Court and other tribunals regarding the Martial Law of that period, which tackled widespread human rights violations in the form of murders, rape, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and forced hamletting (isolation of villages).

She noted that various forms of torture were used in tactical interrogation, in an attempt to obtain information from detainees about opposition to the Marcos government. The more the detainees resisted, the more serious the torture used.

There was also an “unprecedented scale of plunder” and “organized pillage”, reaching billions of dollars.

It was also an “extremely oppressive” regime, where power was concentrated only in Marcos and his allies.

“The voice of the king was the voice of God,” Sereno said. Marcos amassed so much power that he was able to take “absolute command of the nation, and the people could only trust that he would not fail them. (And) we know what happened: Marcos failed our people.”

The Philippines also went into “economic tailspin”, from being the second most vibrant economy in Asia, to its sick man. It owed foreign entities billions of dollars in debt.

These were the reasons why the fears stoked by the terms “Martial Law” and “suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” should not come as a surprise, the Chief Justice said.

But, she stressed, these apprehensions were created by Marcos and his brand of Martial Law.

If Duterte and government authorities avoided the “gross historical sins” of Marcos and his agents, then the Philippines might reap the benefits of the “legitimate use” of the provisions on Martial Law in the 1987 Constitution. It rejected and absolutely prohibited the particular kind of Martial Law that began in September 1972.

“The 1987 Constitution, in unmistakeable language, says, ‘A state of Martial Law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military court and agencies over civilians, where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus’,” Sereno noted.

When properly implemented, Martial Law “should not – by itself – unduly burden” the country.

She explained, “This power was granted to allow the president to resolve the situation ‘in case of invasion or rebellion when the public safety requires it’. There may be questions before the Supreme Court regarding whether this can be extended to encompass situations akin to invasion or rebellion, and what circumstances constitute rebellion… Suffice it to say that the Martial Law power is an immense power that can be used for good to solve defined emergencies.”

“But all earthly powers, when abused, can result in oppression,” she cautioned.

“Our hopes for the future depend on whether the Executive Department, led by the President, the leadership, and the entirety of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, Department of Justice officials and prosecutors, the Chief Public Attorney and her public defenders, will take sufficient care to abide by the Constitution and laws, even while Martial Law is in place. It depends on whether there will be abuse of the awesome power that Martial Law gives the armed forces and the police. It also depends on whether Congress and the Supreme Court will exercise their review powers appropriately over the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, and whether both Houses of Congress, and all courts, will continue to function normally and well. It also depends on whether certain independent constitutional bodies, namely the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Audit, will persist in discharging their proper functions. Finally, it depends on whether you, my fellow Ateneans, together with the rest of the Filipino population, do your part to ensure that this declaration of Martial Law does not imperil your future,” Sereno said, to the audience’s applause.

In the days following Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, Filipinos, she said, must ask themselves what they can do to ensure that the “horrors of Martial Law” during the time of Marcos did not happen again.

At a time when a culture of impunity was on the rise, when people were pressured to pick “the easy choice over the right choice, expediency over due process, unlawful termination of human life over rehabilitation,” Sereno urged the graduates to make a stand.

“More than merely ruminating on the idea of justice, I call on each of you to commit to confront the common injustices of our society and seek to address them. I urge you to speak out with truth even against the overwhelming tide of popular opinion, and reach out to the oppressed and disenfranchised,” she said.

The Chief Justice called on them to be men and women for others.

“When the possibility of history repeating itself looms imminent, no cause requires your commitment as much as the cause of human rights, justice, and democracy,” she said.

Watch Chief Justice Sereno’s speech, which starts at the 2:16:35 mark, in this video from the Ateneo through this link: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8196&v=u2i_BrIG98I).

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno delivers the commencement speech in this screengrab of the livestream of the Ateneo de Manila University graduation ceremony on May 26.