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Five things to know about Martial Law in the Philippines

Election fever is sweeping the Philippines as rallies and debates are held in the lead-up to the 2022 national poll, which will see the country elect a new president, vice-president and thousands of other positions including senators, congressional representatives and mayors.

Amnesty International is calling on all candidates to put human rights front and centre in their campaigns after six years of a murderous ‘war on drugs’, and the rise in impunity for these and other human rights violations during President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

But as campaigns are under way, a disturbing revisionist narrative that is attempting to play down the numerous human rights violations committed during the Martial Law regime back in the 1970s has started to emerge. This was a dark period of Philippine history and it is therefore crucial to ensure that, as part of the Philippines obligations to ensure the rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition, political narratives do not undermine memorialization processes that are central to the fight against impunity.

Attempts to downplay what happened during Martial Law include arguments that the country should move on and forget the past. Indeed, the country must move on towards a radically different approach to human rights. However, forgetting a past of grave human rights violations without guaranteeing the rights to truth, justice and reparations is dangerous and will lead to further human rights violations. As we have seen over the years, sweeping past human rights violations under the carpet can never be the answer.

Debates in the lead-up to 9 May elections offer opportunities for people and political candidates to discuss the needed changes in the political and justice systems, and other conditions in society, that would prevent the recurrence of human rights violations.

Here are five things to know about why the period under Martial Law matters in the ongoing fight for truth, justice and reparations in the Philippines.

1. Extensive human rights violations

2. Clear pattern

Many other civil society organizations have also documented similar crimes under international law and human rights violations during martial law, including the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, the International Commission of Jurists, the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, and the Foundation for Worldwide People Power. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances also presented a damning report to the then Human Rights Commission after a visit to the country in 1990. Reports made by these groups corroborate the findings of Amnesty International that there was a clear pattern of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations committed by the government during this period.

3. Lack of accountability

Given the immensity and pervasiveness of violations, keeping records of violations, including precise figures, remains a difficult and unfinished task to this day. One of the reasons why it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of human rights violations is the lack of accountability and genuine processes of truth-telling to seek more detailed information and contribute to the fight against impunity. Nevertheless, there have been credible efforts to make information about what happened during martial law more accessible to the public, including online such as through the Martial Law Museum, the Martial Law Chronicles Project, and the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

4. Historical revisionism

A lack of justice and accountability can lead to further human rights violations and erasure of the horrors of the past fuels attempts to revise history. Former President Marcos was never held accountable and was instead granted a hero’s burial with full military honours by the Duterte administration in 2016. Amnesty International believes that all those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law or other human rights violations should be brought to justice in fair trials, regardless of when and where the crimes were committed. There should be no amnesties, pardons or similar measures of impunity for such crimes if such measures prevent the emergence of the truth, a final judicial determination of guilt or innocence and full reparation for victims and their families. International law states that no time limits should apply to crimes under international law, irrespective of the date of their commission.

5. Justice remains elusive

Reparations remain elusive for many victims and their families who are unable to prove the violations that they or their relatives experienced during martial law, in the absence of documentation and other requirements. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board – created by the government to “receive, evaluate, process, and investigate” reparation claims made by victims of human rights abuses during martial law, and which ceased its work in 2018 – received as many as 75,000 claimants, but only over 11,000 of these were recognized following the board’s assessment. Funds used to compensate the victims came from Marcos’ Swiss deposits, after Courts found that such funds were obtained by President Marcos through corruption.   

Amnesty International continues to call for truth, justice and reparations to be afforded for all victims of martial law, including continued efforts from the government to go after all those responsible of the atrocities committed during martial law.