On Friday, 3 July 2020, in a move which has been condemned by various Philippines human rights groups and political parties, President Duterte further strengthened the country’s anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency law.
The new laws “allows the detention of suspects for up to 24 days without charge and empowers a government anti-terrorism council to designate suspects or groups as suspected terrorists who could then be subject to arrest and surveillance”. With the creation of a new anti-terrorism council that is directly appointed by the president, the state has also granted itself the power to authorise 90-day surveillance warrants, wiretaps and life imprisonment without parole.
In addition to this, the new laws can be seen to be using an increasingly broad “definition of terrorism that can subject suspects, apprehended without a warrant, to weeks of detention prior to an appearance before a judge”. A special body mostly composed of Cabinet officials appointed by the president would be responsible for the enforcement of the new laws.
This comes on the heels of a United Nations report on the Philippines that has reinforced the image of a Duterte administration inciting violence and promoting human rights abuses, “mostly during a war on drugs in which he promised to kill 100,000 people and pardon police who shoot suspects dead”. Duterte’s political challengers fear that the new laws will provide the impetus for major governmental crackdowns on them and their activities. Amongst the groups expressing concern are religious leaders, journalists, politicians and human rights activists. This is especially pertinent in the case of human rights activists who are seeking international prosecution of those involved in thousands of murders in the recent drugs war.
At the same time, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged Duterte not to sign the legislation into law. While Human Rights Watch has stated that this new law is a “green light to the systematic targeting of political critics and opponents” and said Duterte had “pushed Philippine democracy into an abyss”. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch stated that “The law will open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the president.”
In a similar vein, the human rights group Karapatan has claimed that Duterte appears to be following in the footsteps of the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, stating that “This monstrous piece of legislation is, without any doubt, the final puzzle piece in Duterte’s Marcosian delusions.”
The new legislation has been fasttracked through both houses of Congress, using the Coronavirus Pandemic as a smokescreen. Government officials have stated that the new laws are based on legislation in countries that have successfully dealt with the issue of extremism, and that the law will enhance the response to terrorism within the Philippines. The hope is that these laws will also extend to further domestic issues and threats like kidnappings, piracy and extremism (especially groups influenced by Islamic State). While critics decry such statements, the new law’s approval comes at the same time as various legal cases move forward against media groups and journalists that have spoken out against the Duterte administration. Such groups include ABS-CBN which was “ordered to cease broadcasts on free-to-air and cable channels, and news website Rappler, embroiled in tax evasion and illegal ownership cases”.
Under Duterte’s tenure as president, we are seeing an erosion of media independence, and further human rights abuses. While professing to tackle terrorism, the recent legislations appears more to be designed to facilitate a crackdown on Duterte’s challengers and critics.
Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.