Commentary: Anti-terror law sows terror in the Philippines

Commentary: Anti-terror law sows terror in the Philippines

Bruce Van Voorhis – Hong Kong

Bruce Van Voorhis – Hong Kong

Republic Act No. 9372–better known as the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007 or the Anti-terrorism Act–takes effect on July 15 after being passed by the Philippine Congress in February and signed into law by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on March 6. However, there is anxiety in the Philippines that instead of ensuring people’s security it will increase their insecurity, that instead of thwarting terror it will engender it. Fear, impunity and more human rights violations are predicted to be the effect that the law will have on the country. This view is shared by religious leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, academics, students, trade unionists and even legislators.

Concern begins with the very definition of terrorism in the law. The HSA defines terrorism as acts already outlawed in present laws, such as rebellion or insurrection, coup d’états, murder, kidnapping, arson, hijacking and the illegal possession of firearms and explosives, that lead to “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.” This vague and sweeping definition of terrorism spawns a number of questions. For example, when is fear and panic “widespread and extraordinary”? What constitutes “coercing the government,” and what is an “unlawful demand”? Moreover, why is a special law needed to combat terrorism when what the law defines as acts of terrorism are already punishable by existing laws?

Since the HSA provides for the creation of the Anti-terrorism Council (ATC) to implement the law, a new body composed of senior government officials, including the executive secretary, national security advisor and the secretaries of justice, interior and local government, foreign affairs and national defense, it is the government that will decide when it is being “coerced” by “unlawful demands” as well as answers to the other questions raised by the law’s ambiguous definition of terrorism.

In addition to the broad definition of terrorism above, concern also focuses on the powers that the HSA gives to the police to detain those who have been determined to be terrorists or terrorist organizations for three days without a warrant, to wiretap their phones and other forms of communication, to freeze their bank accounts and to restrict their travel, including placing them under house arrest when they have been granted bail. The law also mandates a heavy penalty if convicted of terrorism or conspiracy to commit a terrorist act: 40 years in prison without parole.

Proponents of the HSA will point to the oversight that the law gives to the judiciary, its prohibitions against torture and extra renditions to other countries where torture is practiced and the award of damages of 500,000 pesos (more than US$10,000) per day of detention that are granted to those who are arrested under the HSA but later acquitted, compensation that must be paid by the police.

While these provisions of the law are laudable, the judicial system in the Philippines has not had any impact on preventing or solving hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances since Arroyo became president in 2001, and torture is still widely practiced in the country although the government signed and ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1987. Thus, will the constraints on misuse of the law highlighted above have any effect? The past human rights record of the Philippines does not encourage a positive response.

It is, in fact, this past human rights record that causes so much trepidation about the introduction of the HSA. In a country where people’s human rights have been respected and well protected for a long period of time, the provisions of the HSA would be worrisome enough. The Philippines though, as noted previously, has witnessed hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the past six years during Arroyo’s presidency, and the government is unable or unwilling to prevent them as they continue unabated today. Indeed, both the Melo Commission appointed by the president last year and the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, concluded several months ago that the majority of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines have been the violent handiwork of the military. It is in this environment that the HSA triggers terror as it gives more tools to the government to suppress dissent and its critics, such “terrorists” as church leaders and lay people, journalists, lawyers, students, peasants and trade unionists that have been the primary victims of the country’s wave of extrajudicial killings and disappearances over the years. State-sponsored terrorism supplants efforts to avert terror against the state as the most likely outcome of the HSA’s implementation.

Thus, if human rights are not to deteriorate further in the Philippines, it is necessary to repeal this law as quickly as possible. This conclusion is also shared by Sen. Maria Madrigal who introduced a bill on July 4 to repeal the HSA. While the bill might pass the upper house of Congress, it probably will face defeat in the House of Representatives where Arroyo’s party and allies have a majority of votes.

It must be noted in conclusion that in addition to being known as the Human Security Act of 2007 and the other designations listed earlier the law also has another title: An Act to Secure the State and Protect Our People from Terrorism. Based on the past performance of the Arroyo government, it appears that the true aim of the law is to “secure the state,” but it will accomplish this goal by terrorizing its people. If the Arroyo administration is serious about giving life to both objectives contained in this title of the law, it can best achieve this end by taking steps to stop the extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and other human rights violations in the country. Thus far, however, the Arroyo government has not displayed such seriousness.

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong KongHe serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.