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Opinion

Duterte's terror bill threatens freedom in the name of security

The broadly drawn law could be weaponized against civic protest

| Philippines
Anti-riot police officers stand on guard in Mindanao in July 2017: it is not clear that draconian rules work.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

The Philippines has been host to two of the world's longest running insurgencies, Islamist and communist, which have ravaged its southern island of Mindanao since the 1960s. Over time, many rebel groups have radicalized and turned to acts of terror. The monthslong siege of Marawi by Islamic State-affiliated fighters in 2017 was a stark reminder of how profound the country's counterterrorism challenge is.

This threat is the ostensible reason why in early June, on the urging of President Rodrigo Duterte, the first president from conflict-ridden Mindanao, the Philippines adopted a draconian counterterrorism law. The government argued that tougher legislation was indispensable to avoiding another major terrorist attack, including recent suicide bombings, and ensuring extremist groups and rebels do not exploit the COVID-19 crisis.

Human rights and civil society groups, however, contend that the new counterterrorism law is too broadly drawn and will instead usher in a "reign of terror," allowing authorities to silence voices of opposition in the name of national security. These groups are not wrong to be concerned.

Experts have long argued that the Philippines' existing anti-terrorism law, the 2007 Human Security Act, was too restrictive for security agencies. It required security forces to pay as much as 500,000 Philippine pesos ($10,000) per day in damages to wrongfully detained suspects. It also limited the apprehension and interrogation of a terrorist suspect based on preliminary intelligence to only three days.

The new law eliminates the heavy financial penalties for wrongful detention, extends preventive detention to at least 14 days and allows counterterrorism agents to conduct up to 60-day surveillance of suspects. Special higher courts will be tapped to approve, expedite and oversee the counterterror operations.

Proponents of the new anti-terror law, however. also argue that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse and that other major democracies allow extensive wiretapping, like the U.S., and preventive detention, like Australia.

Opponents are not convinced. Their greatest source of concern is the broad definition of terrorism, which includes any attempt to "create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear" or "intimidate the general public." An abusive government could weaponize the law against opposition groups and critics since certain "exercises of civil and political rights" could be deemed as acts of terrorism if they "create a serious risk to public safety."

Demonstrators walk past a police officer during a protest against the proposed anti-terror bill in Quezon City on June 4: the greatest source of concern is the broad definition of terrorism.   © Reuters

It also eliminates a number of restrictions on the detention and surveillance of suspects.

Thanks to such a broad and vague definition of terrorism, civil society groups such as Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties have warned that the law allows the government to decide how it wants to "construe legitimate acts of dissent or opposition within these definitions -- it gives the government almost free rein in determining who are suspected terrorists."

Even though the law has certain safeguards, these groups are concerned about the viability of institutional checks on potential abuse. Over the past four years, Duterte has overseen, among other controversial policies, a violent drug war which has led to widespread human rights violations, including thousands of reported extrajudicial killings.

As of writing, not a single top Filipino official has been held accountable, while some of those accused of massive violation have either been promoted or elected to highest offices in the land. Given this endemic culture of impunity, which runs beyond Duterte's presidency, one wonders about the strength of legal safeguards.

Similarly, shortly after Duterte was given emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic during a nationwide lockdown, there was a wave of warrantless arrests against those accused of engaging in "misinformation," a term that has been vaguely defined by authorities. One netizen, for instance, was arrested after simply calling the president "crazy" and insulting one of his allies.

Even operationally, it is not clear that draconian rules work. Two-year-long martial law across the entire island of Mindanao, which gave security forces maximum leeway against suspected terrorists, still failed to prevent a flurry of suicide bombings in the country for the first time in history, not to mention the regrouping of extremists and rebels. Thus, the key issue here is more the effectiveness of counter-terrorism operations than restrictiveness of existing laws per se.

The ultimate solution to terror and violence is not greater force but long-term socio-economic reforms that address the root causes of radicalization and rebellion in the country's poorest regions.

Eager to preserve democratic freedoms, civil society groups are expected to challenge the new law in the Supreme Court, now the country's last and best hope to ensure it does not sacrifice democratic freedom at the altar of national security.

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