The Filipino Parliament and the Supreme Court should guarantee that the highly contentious Anti-Terrorism Act won’t be used as a tool of political victimization.
By Umair Jamal
The Philippines’ House of Representatives passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill this month that has triggered protests across the country, as human rights activists warn the law is aimed at suppressing political dissent and civil liberties.
The new law, which has yet to be signed by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, replaces the Human Security Act, enacted in 2007 to address insurgency issues and terrorism.
The UN Human Rights Office has warned that the proposed act could be abused. “The proposed 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, slated to replace the already problematic Human Security Act, dilutes human rights safeguards, broadens the definition of terrorism and expands the period of detention without warrant… The vague definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act may violate the principle of legality,” noted a reported published by the UN.
Similarly, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) has cautioned that “The proposed anti-terrorism bill is the last piece of the puzzle of the Duterte government’s martial law.”
Lawmakers opposing the bill say that the act will equip the military with extraordinary powers to detain and prosecute anyone without judicial oversight.
However, the government has attempted to justify the bill by saying it would facilitate security agencies’ counterterrorism efforts. Supporters of the law argue that the existing Human Security Act doesn’t offer effective legislative cover to security agencies in their fight against militancy, and that a tough law is needed to contain the spread of terrorism in the country.
What is so worrying about the law?
The language of the draft law shows that the government and its law enforcement agencies would be able to act with impunity unless some very problematic loopholes in the bill are addressed.
The bill expands the definition of terrorism to include “acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person.” Essentially, this means that anyone who intends to commit a crime or who is considered harmful to the state’s interests can be booked under terrorism charges.
The act also bans “speeches, proclamations, writings, banners and emblems” that may undermine the government’s work. Duterte has a long history of cracking down on political opposition.
The law is a clear warning sign for President Duterte’s critics: if they don’t fall in line, they can be targeted under terrorism-related offenses.
If the bill is passed in its current form, the Muslim minority in the Philippines could also become an easy target for law enforcement agencies. Muslims in the Philippines constitute the largest religious minority in the country and are often viewed with suspicion by the government.
A number of Filipino lawmakers from the insurgency-hit Southern Mindanao region have voiced concerns about the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Bill, fearing it would “increase discrimination against the Muslim community.”
The law has the potential to further aggravate a tense conflict involving the southern Muslim areas. According to a report from Brookings, over the past 40 years, more than 120,000 people have died in the southern Muslim region in conflict with government forces. The law may reignite the Muslim population’s demand for the establishment of an independent state.
The act also undermines the ability of several constitutional mechanisms and institutions, including the judiciary, to protect basic human rights in the country. The law will be enforced by the Anti-Terrorism Council without any oversight or intervention from the judiciary. The members of the council are appointed by the president, meaning there will be little transparency around the enforcement of the act.
If the law is not challenged by the Supreme Court, it will systematically erode the judiciary’s capacity to check other branches of the government.
Will the Supreme Court challenge the controversial act?
The growing opposition to the proposed law means that it is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court. According to Antonio Carpio, a retired Filipino Supreme Court justice, “the law deals with fundamental constitutional rights” and can be questioned by anyone in the top court.
Legal experts believe that the act directly questions the Supreme Court’s authority and weakens judiciary oversight in times of crisis. “These vague definitions may violate the principle of legality under international law… And now you add to this the context of the Philippines where a lot of politicians and human rights organizations are routinely being labeled as terrorists—this is very worrying,” said UN Human Rights Office representative Ravina Shamdasani.
The country’s top court cannot disregard the fact that the bill would allow the government to interrogate detainees for weeks without any judicial supervision. “From the current three days under the Human Security Act, the bill stretches this to 14 days, extendable by 10 more days. Individuals can also be placed under surveillance for 60 days, extendable by up to 30 more days, by the police or the military,” notes the UN Human Rights Office.
Even if the bill becomes a law, the House of Representatives can challenge it by garnering a two-thirds vote against it. It is important that the Filipino Parliament thoroughly debates the bill to evaluate its merits. The Parliament should work to guarantee that the act is not going to be used as an instrument of political victimization.
The way forward
The country’s top court should intervene to provide institutional safeguards to protect basic human rights, especially of minorities and political activists that question the current regime’s controversial policies.
A law that violates constitutional norms and values should be abrogated by the Supreme Court. International institutions, particularly the UN, need to play a more active role to protect civil liberties in the country.