Controversial Anti-Terrorism Law Approved In The Philippines


Amidst strict quarantine procedures in the Philippines, in which police have been accused of committing abuses, President Rodrigo Duterte on July 3 fast-tracked the widely controversial Anti-Terrorism Law. The new law, which is intentionally broad, grants security forces far-reaching powers to arrest and detain suspected individuals without a warrant in some cases for up to 54 days. The new law has sparked protests in the country and outrage from human rights organisations.

Duterte’s administration has been subject to international condemnation following its ‘war on drugs’ campaign. A report published by the UN on June 4th found that, “the human rights situation in the Philippines is marked by an overarching focus on public order and national security, including countering terrorism and illegal drugs.” This focus on violent rhetoric from Duterte deems ‘enemies of the state’, such as drug users, as “terrorists”. As a result, according to the report, “this focus has permeated the implementation of existing laws and policies and the adoption of new measures – often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law, and accountability.” This new Anti-Terrorism law has been constructed on such violent rhetoric and acts as an expansion from the ‘war on drugs’ to a ‘war on terror’. Nicholas Bequelin, Asia-Pacific Regional Director for Amnesty International, highlights the dangerous ambiguity in the new law as an opportunity to freely target those who stand against the state. “This administration has effectively crafted a new weapon to brand and hound any perceived enemies of the state. In the prevailing climate of impunity, a law so vague on the definition of ‘terrorism’ can only worsen attacks against human rights defenders”.

Military officials who back Duterte’s new law often cite the ‘terrorist’ threat from supposed Islamic groups, such as Abu Sayyaf, operating in the region. However, this has often resulted in the disproportionate targeting of the country’s Moro population in the south. Members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which represents the Moro population in Mindanao, widely opposed the Anti-Terrorism bill and urged for parties to address the “issues of vagueness, overbreadth and other concerns.” Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, previously seen as a terrorist group by Duterte, stresses that the new bill undermines progress made to fight terrorism in the region at the cost of the Moro people, “I cannot help but be alarmed by the language and foreseeable consequences of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill… [it] stems from the long history of persecution, human rights violations, and discrimination suffered by the Bangsamoro.”

The Anti-Terrorism Bill replaces the Human Security Act of 2007, which was created to focus on a localised perception of security; human security. However, the Human Security Act was used to promote and legitimize counter-terrorism for national security. This rhetoric has been rooted in Philippine society, amplified by the various instances of martial law and demonstrated with this latest Anti-Terrorism bill.

Historically, the Moro population have been designated as threats to the state and have been subject to such national security legislation. Although the new law does not specifically target the Moro population, the fact that the current bill targets ‘terrorists’ in the broad sense, accompanied by the historical tendency to label enemies of the state as terrorists, including members of the Moro population, is a dangerous precedent. One of several articles in the bill punishes those who voluntarily and knowingly join any ‘terrorist group’ with 12 years’ imprisonment. Whilst the terrorist threat in the Philippines may be real, the new law significantly undermines current progress made by various actors, particularly in Mindanao, in reducing this threat. To preserve the progress made against terrorism via rehabilitation, reintegration and education, the law must be amended to reduce the intentional vagueness and to limit the possibility for abuse. Additionally, a people-centred approach to human security built on positive peace, rather than traditional national security, should be prioritised. More historically, this is vitally needed to build trust between Manila and the Moro population in the south to preserve peace in the country.