The decision to declare martial law in the wake of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) outbreak lies solely with President Rodrigo R. Duterte, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.
Lorenzana made the remark when sought for a comment on Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo's pronouncements that the Chief Executive can impose martial law due to the Covid-19 "invasion."
"Secretary Panelo is technically correct that this is an invasion. The virus came from abroad and in fact, it has invaded the whole world. But this is primarily a health issue, a war against a deadly and highly contagious virus," he said in a message to reporters.
But Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra opposed Panelo’s opinion that viruses could be a form of “invasion” that could justify the declaration of martial law.
“In the context of martial law, 'invasion' refers to invasion of a country by foreign armed forces. This is analogous to the other ground for declaring martial law, i.e., rebellion, which is an armed uprising against the government by its own citizens,” Guevarra said in a text message to reporters.
“Both terms refer to armed actions by human beings, not by non-living things like viruses,” he added.
Under the 1987 Constitution, a president can only declare martial law in case of invasion or rebellion when the public safety requires it.
Panelo earlier declared that invasion “ can mean the entry of a disease and the transfer from one area to another. There is an actual invasion of the coronavirus disease, which is (a) pandemic. It threatens, in fact, the entire country.”
Integrated Bar of the Philippines President Domingo Egon Cayosa, on the other hand, described Panelo’s view as “a creative interpretation of the Constitution.”
“A more careful reading of the records of the Constitutional Commission and a number of Supreme Court rulings would show that the mere spread of a deadly virus is not the ‘invasion’ envisioned by Section 18, Article 7 of the 1987 Constitution,” the IBP president said.
“The contemporary meaning of ‘invasion’ at the time of the crafting and the ratification of the 1987 Constitution should not be stretched to cover just any excuse to declare martial law,” Cayosa added.
According Cayosa, the authority to declare martial law is an “exceptional” power of the President and should be “restrictively construed.”
While lawless violence, if there is factual basis of such during the COVID-19 pandemic; and when “public safety requires it” could be more logical and legal grounds for the declaration of martial, these could be denied by Congress, the IBP official said.
Former Vice President Jejomar Binay and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro also rejected Panelo’s view.
"The Constitution is very clear on the grounds for declaring martial law. There is no room for interpretation or - in the case of the Presidential Legal Counsel - fanciful and hallucinatory misinterpretation," said Binay in a statement.
"But while we may be amused by his statement, the fact that it was even made public by a key member of the Cabinet should give us reason to pause and prepare for what comes next," he added.
Binay was among the personalities during the EDSA Revolution in 1986 that resulted in the ouster of the late strongman President Ferdinand Marcos who declared martial rule in September 1972.
The former Vice President was the first local government official appointed by the late former President Corazon Aquino after the uprising.
Castro, meanwhile, says Panelo's statement was a form of mind conditioning.
“Mind conditioning for public acceptance of martial law,” Castro said.
Castro added that last week, Panelo mentioned included in the list of heroes soldiers and police killed in action, without a word about the real heroes in hospitals, our doctors, nurses, and thousands of health workers, or the war veteran killed by police.
“Now, it's the presidential legal adviser coming up with an absurd interpretation of the Constitution to equate ‘invasion’ to a virus,” Castro said.
This administration is attempting to convince the public that strongman rule is always the solution for any problem it fails to solve, she said.
“Hindi kailangan ng martial law para maisagawa ang makatunayang mass testing lalo na sa health workers, matatanda, at iba pang vulnerable. Hindi kailangan ng martial law para magawan ng contact tracing ang mga kapamilya, katrabaho, at sinumang naging contact ng bawat confirmed COVID patient,” said CAstro.
“Hindi dapat baliktarin ang civilian supremacy at gawing military rule—Matulungan ba nito ang LGUs na makapagtayo ng testing and isolation centers? Susunod ba ang mga sundalo sa mga governor, mayor, at iba pang local officials sa implementasyon ng quarantine ordinances halimbawa, o baliktad ang mangyayari? Mabibigay na ba ang pinangakong ayuda sa mamamayan kung ipaubaya sa mga sundalo at pulis ang cash, food, and non-food aid?,” said Castro.
Castro said the COVID crisis is a public health problem requiring urgent public health solutions.
“By no stretch of the imagination—legal or otherwise—can the administration justify declaring martial law amid the COVID crisis. Atty. Panelo shouldn't even try,” Castro said.
But Lorenzana said that declaring Martial Law or not remains the President’s call.
"Whether it is ground for ML (martial law) or not, it is up to the President," he said.
Lorenzana's views were shared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
"The declaration of martial law and the bases thereof depend upon the wise determination and prudent discretion of the President," AFP spokesperson, Marine Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a press statement.
Arevalo added that the power to declare martial law in the wake of the Covid-19 threat is within the powers of the Commander-in-Chief, subject to the concurrence of both houses of Congress.
He, however, said there has been no such discussion so far in the AFP because the military is focused on helping the national and local governments in containing the Covid-19 threats and defeating terrorist groups operating in the country.
"At this time, our sights remain focused keenly on how to help national and local governments to curb the pandemic, sustain our irreversible gains in further degrading the communist terrorist group, and defeat decisively other local terrorist groups, like the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters," he added.
Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police (PNP) said there is no pressing need to place the country under martial law due to the present emergency situation caused by Covid-19.
"There is no imminent threat from rebellion or invasion as of yet to justify the declaration of Martial Law. Nonetheless, the PNP leaves this matter to the better judgment of the national leadership if it so finds it necessary," PNP spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac said in a statement.
But he said that the PNP is ready to abide by and implement the orders of the President.