The current situation in the Philippines is one that stems from a long and complicated history of political corruption that’s been shaped by colonialism and U.S. imperialism. If you missed it, you wouldn’t be alone. Amidst the multiple crises unfolding around the world right now, the Philippines Anti-Terror Law hasn’t been getting the media coverage that it deserves. While digging into the factors that led to the Philippines leader President Duterte and his regime’s rise to power is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to educate yourself on what’s going on and why this issue needs continued attention.
What is the Philippines Anti-Terror Law?
The “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020” is an Act that has just been signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on the 3rd of July. It’s intended to replace the Human Security Act of 2007. The bill was brought in under the intention of “[providing] law enforcers the legal tools to protect people from terrorism and at the same provide safety nets to protect the rights of those accused of the crime.” While it might seem like an anti-terrorism stance is one that should be supported, the problem arises with the broad definitions of what constitutes “terrorism” by the bill and what the government may now legally do with its powers.
The Act’s definition of terrorism is vague and includes a point that defines terrorism as acts that “create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any international organization, seriously destabilise or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures in the country.” Under this Act, the government is able to silence dissent and label nearly anyone a terrorist—whether your crime is causing injury to someone or simply sharing a message or Instagram post that is critical of the government.
The Anti-Terrorism Act extends the time someone can be held without a warrant of arrest, from three days to 14. That can then be extended by another ten days. As well as the potential human rights abuses that could be committed against someone during that time, their lawyers or family would also be unable to gain access to them. People can also be placed under surveillance for 60 days, that can also be extended by up to 30 days, by the police or military.
What are people saying about the Anti-Terror Law?
One of the very few independent media organisations in the Philippines, Rappler, has been vocal in its criticism of the law. They highlight the opposing Senators Risa Hontiveros and Francis Pangilinan who are warning that the bill could be abused, Pangilinan specifically “points to the ‘arrest-and-detain-now, produce-or-invent-evidence-later’ practice of the police.” They argue that within the framework of the Philippines broken legal system, it’s yet another weapon the government can use to silence criticism and opposition.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who opposed the original bill, said that “with the Anti-Terrorism Act as part of the law of the land, it is as if the Philippines is permanently under a situation worse than martial law.”
International voices have also been extremely critical of the bill. Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin, explained that “The approval of this law grants the government excessive and unchecked powers. Legislation aimed at ‘countering terrorism’ must ensure respect for international human rights and humanitarian law and protect basic liberties.” The Terror bill flouts a number of human rights and the 1987 Philippine Constitution, violations of which have been a pattern under Duterte’s regime.
The wider context in the Philippines
For the last several years, Duterte’s used the ‘war on drugs’ to justify extrajudicial killings, particularly within lower-socioeconomic areas. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Philippines, which has some of the most densely populated cities in the world, it hit it hard. They’ve had one of the longest lockdown periods of affected countries and are still waiting for mass testing. During that lockdown, Duterte gave “shoot to kill” orders on people “causing trouble” during the quarantine, only adding to the fears that the government and police were using the pandemic to further abuse their power and carry out these killings.
Under the new bill, peaceful protesters have already been violently dispersed and arrested. Filipino people are at risk when they criticise the government, though many would likely not be equipped to criticise it anyway due to the messy and corrupt monopoly of the Philippines’s media. Most of the current outcry that makes it’s way to us is from the educated classes, and aren’t representative of what the general population might think about the bill. Further, there’s been a wave of fake social media profiles spreading pro-Act information and framing it as “what needs to be done” to solve the Philippines’ problems.
It’s also worth noting the problems that plague the Philippines run deep and are often interconnected to its history of colonisation and current reliance on other international powers for various economic bolstering. For example, a large number of drugs that fuel the drug problem in the Philippines come from China. The Philippines is reliant on Chinese investment and it’s building projects… many of which require on their contracts that the labourers employed on the jobs be made up of 50% Chinese workers. The Act allows the government to silence criticism of this situation.
What can be done?
This is an incredibly complex and difficult one to untangle. In terms of challenging the Anti-Terror Law itself, Atty. Romel Bagares, professor of International Law at the Lyceum Philippines University College of Law and former executive director at Centerlaw, explained that the law can be amended on the basis of its unconstitutionality. The problem is, it would need to pass through the same law-making system that created the Anti-Terror bill, including being approved by Duterte. You can read more about that process here.
From an international perspective, it appears that Filipinos on social media are calling for more attention to the Anti-Terror Law and for us to speak out because they’re at risk when they do so. There are resources and links in these two carrds to sign petitions. That said, some people are saying that petitions may not be effective any more now that the bill has become an Act and that emailing may be more effective. Here are two forms which enable you to do this, follow the prompts about making your email unique (even just adding an extra sentence) so that it’s not dismissed as spam.
Lead image via Twitter @ABSCBNNews.