The decision to end a 31-year-old agreement with the University of the Philippines, which prevented security forces from freely entering campuses, will only cast doubts on its intent and aggravate mistrust toward the government, the Commission on Human Rights said.
In a statement Wednesday, the CHR said it is alarmed by the unilateral termination of the Department of National Defense of its agreement with UP, which bars state forces from entering campuses without coordination with school officials.
The CHR said the exercise of academic freedom, such as conducting ideological discourses or holding non-violent protest activities against the government, is not a threat to the country’s security that would justify intervention by the armed forces.
“There is no justification for government to stifle the legitimate exercise of rights guaranteed under the constitution, including that of academic freedom within universities. And there is no need for any accord on this,” CHR spokesperson Jacqueline De Guia, a lawyer, said in a statement.
“More than anything, the agreement between UP and the DND underscored the recognition by the two institutions that the expression of intellectual dissent is part of academic freedom which ought to be respected by government,” she added.
De Guia said that the 1989 UP-DND accord is more than an agreement limiting the entry of state forces as it has protected UP students, faculty and employees from “arbitrary, capricious repressions of protected rights.”
“Although some quarters may deem it alarmist, it is now legitimate to ask if the government, through the military (not police), is contemplating the suppression of civil and political rights, including academic freedom, within the university. Otherwise, why threaten the university with the symbolic act of repudiating the said accord?”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana terminated the deal in a letter to UP President Danilo Concepcion, a move that the UP official was done without consultation.
In justifying the abrupt move, the defense chief used the unsubstantiated accusation that UP, which has a tradition of activism and involvement in social issues, has become “a safe haven for enemies.”
In a press conference on Wednesday, Lorenzana said that the government will “allow legitimate dissent” but added that “when you begin plotting against the government, then that's not good.”
‘Perilous, brazen affront’
Human rights group Karapatan meanwhile said the unilateral abrogation of the UP-DND accord “is a perilous and brazen affront” to the exercise of academic freedom and democratic rights as well as the safety and security of the UP community.
“The DND’s arbitrary invalidation of the accord is yet another indication of the Duterte administration’s intolerance of critical thinking and political dissent which is being exercised by members of the UP community,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.
A similar agreement exists between the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and the DND. PUP students held a protest Wednesday morning against the possible termination of that agreement.
“Despite such agreements, police and military presence and activities within campuses have continued, with forums red-tagging student organizations and bodies to the closing down of alternative learning institutions for indigenous youth. With the abrogation of the accord, the DND wants to shortcut its means in conducting military and police operations with impunity within these spaces,” Palabay said.
Address other issues
The CHR also advised the government to address a number of social inequalities that fuel protests and tendencies of rebellion in the country—the same issues that UP alumni are also trying to address.
“CHR, as a product of the triumph of democracy after the dark days of dictatorship, urges the government to focus its attention to issues of guaranteeing public health, alleviating poverty, promoting sustainable development, advancing social justice, and ensuring good governance among others,” De Guia said.
“Finding a solution to the country's problems will be better if we can think, discuss, and debate freely; when we can hold leaders accountable to the people; and there is respect for human rights at all times,“ she added.
Lawmakers have urged the government to rethink the decision as it unnecessarily raises tensions and reduces democratic space.