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A Dangerous Law at a Vulnerable Time

While the Philippines is still reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 virus on public health and the economy, the government moved a step closer to expanding its use of police power. A government-supported bill, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, had been hastily passed by the Philippine legislature. The bill now awaits the signature of the President to become law. The proposed legislation will create an Anti-Terrorism Council, consisting of presidential appointees. They will authorize the arrest without warrant of persons designated as “terrorist” and their detention without charges for up to 24 days before facing a judicial court. Previous protections against the abuse of police power to detain persons have been removed or weakened. For example, current Philippine law imposes a hefty fine on law enforcers for the unjust detention of persons. The proposed bill eliminates this penalty. Presently, those accused of terrorism can only be detained up to three days before they are required to face a judge. The proposed law extends the detention period up to 24 days.

According to Human Rights Watch, the bill’s definition of terrorism is so broad that “starting a fight in a bar could technically be classified as an act of terrorism.” The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in its recently released report on extrajudicial killings during the Duterte administration, warned that “ the Anti-Terrorism Bill dilutes human rights safeguards, broadens the definition of terrorism and expands the period of detention without warrant…. The vague definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act may violate the principle of legality.”

President Duterte claims that the bill was necessary to neutralize terrorist threats from communist insurgents and radical Islamic groups. He claims that current national security laws are ineffective in stopping terrorist attacks because these are too lenient to offenders and too strict on the use of police powers. The proposed legislation, however, has provisions that can be weaponized to intimidate journalists and human rights activists with detention and imprisonment if they challenge unjust government policies and activities. In response to this grave threat to human rights, civil society organizations, universities, business groups, religious leaders, and members of the political opposition have expressed their strong opposition against the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The proposed law will be an addition to a growing pattern of harassment and elimination of persons and organizations identified as enemies by the government. The country has the distinction of being one of the deadliest places for journalists in Southeast Asia, with 83 journalists killed since 1992. Red-tagging or labeling of individuals or institutions as communists fronts or sympathizers is routinely used by the police to intimidate or detain student activists, labor rights advocates, and non-government organizations.

The eventual passage of the bill comes at a vulnerable time in the country. The suffering brought about by Covid-19 continues to be a heavy burden on the lives of Filipinos. Strict quarantine measures prevented free travel, social gatherings, and classroom education.  Many workers have become unemployed and are running out of resources to survive the prolonged shutdown of many businesses. Economic survival and avoidance of infection are the primary concerns of many families at the moment.  Poor communities dependent on government assistance during the pandemic may feel constrained to protest against the counter-terrorism bill, fearing the withdrawal of aid.

The need to halt the spread of the virus has conditioned citizens to accept and obey government orders that limit the exercise of individual rights. A line must be drawn, however, between the temporary suspension of rights for the sake of public safety and the erosion of fundamental rights that protect persons from abuses of power. The building up of the common good indeed requires compromise and negotiation among members of society to achieve a balancing of rights and duties. It is, however, contrary to the common good to violate human rights to preserve an unjust status quo or give more power to those in authority.  Vatican II reminds us that “when the exercise of rights is restricted temporarily for the common good, freedom should be restored immediately upon change of circumstances. Moreover, it is inhuman for public authority to fall back on dictatorial systems or totalitarian methods which violate the rights of the person or social groups.” (Gaudium et Spes #75). The protection of fundamental human rights is an integral dimension of the pursuit of the common good

Unless the President vetos the bill, it will pass into law within 30 days if he does not sign it. A legal challenge by opposition politicians and lawyers will likely be filed in the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Citizens must be vigilant and not allow themselves to be distracted or paralyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The struggle for the protection of human rights at this time of fear and vulnerability is a battle that Filipinos cannot afford to lose. It will be a sad tragedy if a country that ousted a dictator more than thirty years ago will allow another strongman to take away its hard-won freedoms and rights.