On a worrying choice of words. Published on May 30, 2017.
When President Duterte arrived from Moscow, a day after he imposed martial law on all of Mindanao, he gave a speech explaining the rationale for his exercise of extraordinary power and then conducted a news conference. In response to a question about the rules of engagement now in place in Mindanao, he gave an extended answer, which included the following statement:
“You know, I have always maintained that my duty, my sacred duty to preserve and defend the Filipino, does not emanate from any constitutional restriction.”
“It is in my oath of office. I beg to disagree with anyone. In this oath of office which I promised to God and to the people that I will protect and defend the country.”
(I am using the official transcript provided by the Presidential Communications Operations Office.)
I thought the President’s recollection of his oath was curious, to say the least. The oath of office is provided, word for word, in Article VII of the Constitution:
“Section 5. Before they enter on the execution of their office, the President, the Vice-President, or the Acting President shall take the following oath or affirmation:
“‘I do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill my duties as President [or Vice-President or Acting President] of the Philippines, preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws, do justice to every man, and consecrate myself to the service of the Nation. So help me God.’ [In case of affirmation, last sentence will be omitted].”
This is the same formulation of the oath as it was first provided in the 1935 Constitution (and copied in the 1973 Constitution). The framers of the 1987 Constitution deliberately used it to invoke tradition and recall history. As for the hallowed phrase “preserve and defend,” it is used to refer to the Constitution itself.
But President Duterte’s impromptu remarks suggest that he remembers his oath differently: At first he talks about his duty to “preserve and defend the Filipino,” and then later talks about his duty to “protect and defend the country.” Throughout his entire extended answer, the President did not in fact reference the need to “preserve and defend” the Constitution. Indeed, he asserted that his “sacred duty … does not emanate from any constitutional restriction.”
This is a worrying choice of words, especially in the dimming light of his pronouncements after that news conference. He is expressly pledged to “preserve and defend the Constitution,” but since then he has promised not to follow any ruling from the Supreme Court or any vote by Congress regarding his declaration of martial law; he has encouraged the soldiers doing the fighting against the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group (the terrorist groups trying to catch the attention of a terror network better called the Daesh) by telling them they can arrest anyone without warrant or rape as many as three women (each?), if they want. I realize that last encouragement was said as a sick joke, but we need to ask ourselves: Why is the person charged with the sacred duty to preserve and defend the Constitution the first to encourage an assault on the Bill of Rights?
To be sure, in the prepared remarks he read at the airport, the President did reference respect for the Constitution: “It is our Constitutional mandate to enforce the law and provide security. It is our Constitutional duty to ensure that every family, every community, all Filipinos, are assured to live in peace and harmony.” The speech he read at the Philippine Military Academy graduation last March also called on the country’s new military officers to pledge loyalty “to the flag and the Constitution.”
It is when he goes off-script that he gives short shrift to the Constitution. Why is that?
Let’s accept the first premise of his (implied) argument for martial law: He is called to fulfill his oath of office. But his oath requires him to serve the nation, to do justice to every man, to execute the laws, and (this duty takes pride of place) to preserve and defend the Constitution. That means respecting the role Court and Congress must perform, not corrupting the military as “the protector of the people and the State,” and exhorting everyone to follow the law. He is not supposed to break it.