On 5th June, 2020 the Philippines Government passed the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which now awaits President Duterte’s assent, after which it will effectively repeal the current Human Security Act, 2007. The military thought that the current legislation was not effective enough to counter modern terrorism which includes online recruitment of terrorists and digital planning of terrorist activities.
The Bill aims to eliminate certain legal protections, and increase Government overreach against groups and individuals labelled as terrorists.
Since President Rodrigo Deuterte assumed office in the Philippines, human rights violations have worsened with increase in vigilantism and use of lethal force in the country’s war on drugs. This has also resulted in multiple arbitrary detentions, killings, torture , and a suppression of dissent as Philippines noted a closure of one of its independent media outlets – ABS CBN.
While official reports show that around 8,600 people have been killed in this process, some estimates say that the actual killing is nearly triple the recorded number. President Deuterte had earlier noted in his campaign that people who were labelled as ‘drug suspects’ were not killed, however any attempt at probing into this matter by independent journalists was countered by threats of death and their ban on entering into the Philippines.
Countries that impose martial laws like the Anti-Terrorism Bill are usually given the leeway and are not brought under scrutiny in International Courts as these countries are provided the benefit of doubt that the enactment has taken place to improve public order and national security in the country, and that the country needs such legislation urgently.
Using this protection, President Deuterte enacted this legislation which is both martial in nature and cannot be challenged on any international forum and thus, can be effectively used as a tool to suppress dissent.
Provisions of the Bill
Section 4 of the Bill which defines terrorism includes everything within its ambit from ‘actual’ acts of terrorism to a mere ‘threat’ of the same, and fixes the same liability in both the instances, i.e., life imprisonment.
The Bill also allows for arbitrary arrest and detention as well as increased surveillance of people who are ‘suspected’ to be terrorists.
Section 29 of the Bill allows for the formation of an Anti-Terrorism Council or an ATC. The ATC is to be composed of the top Cabinet Officers who can order the arrest of any person, whom they deem to be terrorists. These people can be arrested without a warrant and be detained for around 10-14 days, without presenting them before the appropriate authority. Per Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no person can be subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, except in accordance with the Procedure established by Law. Further, Article 18, Section 7 of the Constitution of Philippines lays down that no person shall be detained in custody for more than three days, even when the writ of Habeas Corpus has been suspended. Therefore, the Bill which is to be enacted is not only in contravention with the provisions of the international human rights instruments but also the Constitution of Philippines.
In the current legislation, law enforcement agents who wrongly detain a suspect were held liable and charged around ten thousand US dollars (10,000 USD) for every day of wrongful detainment. This provision too, has been relaxed in the Bill – therefore terminating any semblance of accountability for the law enforcement agents.
The Bill is being slammed by lawmakers and human rights activists across the country for the humanitarian threat that it poses. The definition of terrorism laid down under the Bill while not exhaustively laying down the ‘agents’ who can cause terrorism, has left a lacuna in the letter of the law allowing human rights groups and independent activists to be included within the realm of ‘terrorists’ under the purview of ‘inciting acts of violence’ which is also contained within the definition of terrorism. This outright suppression of any form of dissent can result in multiple grave and dangerous outcomes for civilians in the Philippines.
The law which is already in place in the Philippines is though not inadequate in dealing with the problems the country faces, however the issues with them are mostly related to implementation and circumvention. Hence, these problems should be avoided for the time being and the continuance of the present law should be advocated, as this appears to be the only viable option to protect the people of Philippines from the unconscionable tyrannies of the proposed legislation.
About the Author Lavanya Jha is a third year law student at National Law University, Calcutta. She is the editor of WBNUJS journal of Entertainment and Media law and a holder of Dhirubhai Ambani Scholarship.