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RK Manwong, AV Quijano, LY Paralisan

LEAPS Academy | PG Diploma in Terrorism Studies

July 2020 Edition


The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 repealed the Human Security Act of 2007. The key features of the law include the expansion of the definition of “terrorism” to include acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person, extensive damage and destruction to a government facility, private property or critical infrastructure and when the purpose of those acts is to intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere or message of fear, or seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic and social structures of the country. Anyone found guilty shall be punished with life sentence without the chance of parole.

The law punishes the threat, planning, training, facilitating of and proposal and inciting to terrorist activities by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, banners and emblems. It also subjects a suspect to surveillance, warrantless arrest and detention for up to 24 days. In addition, it removes compensation for the suspect in the event of acquittal. The law also boosted the Anti-Terrorism Council being the implementing arm, whose members are appointed by the President.

The law became controversial when it triggered online and street protests even as community quarantine restrictions are imposed due to COVID-19 pandemic. Some multi-sectoral backlash ensued, but the sponsors of the law and their supporters pressed on.

The Opposition’s Fear of Abuse

During the height of the congressional discussions about the bill and until it was signed into law, the oppositions, mostly led by the legal fronts of the communist group, shared strong sentiments that the law was not timely and it is prone to abuse. Even the Commission on Human Rights have argued that the broad definition of terrorism in the bill paves the road for possible abuse. According to CHR, it could be used to limit substantial freedoms, including expression of dissent, while with the ambiguous definition, authorities could wantonly tag the exercise of rights as terrorist expressions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also said the bill dilutes human rights safeguards.

From the business community, there are least a few business groups who have jointly voiced strong opposition stating the same argument that the bill is highly divisive because it poses clear and present danger to human rights. Some oppositions from universities also emerged notably influenced by the Catholic church.

Necessity and Alignment to National Security

Public safety and national security are the two broad goals of the law. Backers of this legislative measure seek to end terrorism in the country, which is still battling decades of insurgencies by both the Communist group and Islamic extremists. The government has been tirelessly dealing with this problem for a long time.

In 2017, the Islamic State-aligned militants laid siege of Marawi City. Even the lockdown did not stop nor slowed the terror groups in pursuing their terroristic activities. This is evident by communist rebels intensified attacks on soldiers and policemen while securing the distribution of the financial aids, plus attacks by Islamic militants in the southern part of the country that led the evacuation of almost 6,000 people.

The Human Security Act was enacted during the time of President Gloria Arroyo. She was an active participant in the US-led War on Terror. She also held out the rhetoric War on Terror by rendering the CPP-NPA armed struggle as “terrorism” previously viewed as “insurgency”. Those days, the urgency to have a legal framework for counter-terrorism was an external pressure brought to bear by the United States, fully supported by the United Nations Security Council, which obliged countries to adopt anti-terrorism laws. Some of the provisions of the HSA were also controversial during those times before it was enacted.

Although we had the Human Security Act (HAS) of 2007, Senator Panfilo Lacson, the principal author of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, stated that the HSA “has proved to fail in terms of its efficacy as an anti-terrorism measure” partly because of its restrictiveness among enforcers and leniency for offenders. For instance, in the HSA, there are only four instances for terrorists to be prosecuted while there are 20 instances where law enforcers can be charged and penalized for violations of the such law.

The risks of terrorism in the country are genuine and constantly looming. For a nation that has been experiencing deadly terrorist atrocities for decades that accounted for thousands of lives and millions worth of destroyed properties, the government must exercise both its’ duty and mandate to protect national security and safeguard the Filipino people from brutal acts of terrorist act.

Even after the Marawi incursion, terrorism activities in diverse patterns and degree continue to prevail in terror-stricken areas in the Philippines. Predominantly, where the Maute Group (MG) also tagged as the Islamic State of Lanao (ISL), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) an identified affiliate of Al-Qaeda now the Islamic State enjoys a stronghold, the southern part of this country has long been a deadly battle ground for terrorist activities.

Other terror threat groups and pro-ISIS affiliates are continually intimidating government forces, including those as those from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). While these groups have been effectively carrying out targeted attacks, the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army, National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) remain as an inherent threat in our battle against terrorism.

With the existing presence of ISIS affiliates and the younger generation of terrorist groups (plus an influx of foreign terrorist fighters), the Philippines stands even more vulnerable to possible external attacks from extremist networks of the Southeast Asian terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah.

In the thick of a deadly pandemic, the internal and external threats of terrorism seemed to be relentless undermining the country’s peace and orderliness and security and seriously affecting government’s campaign in fighting COVID-19 to include relief and humanitarian efforts being conducted out in hard to reach communities. Apparently, there had been deadly attacks on civilians and government forces rendering the need for more stringent anti-terrorism law in the country.

Comparatively, in countries like Australia, a total of 81 Anti-Terror Laws had been signed since 2001 albeit claims of the Home by Ministry that tough laws alone cannot eliminate terrorism, it is how leaders are responding to the threats through legislation and how it impacts society.

In these current times, the global concern in terrorism leaves every nation with sound prudence to believe that no country is invulnerable to these phenomena. The Anti-Terrorism Law if exercised with reasonable and discerning objectivity will permeate an equilibrium of efficiency in responding against the menace of terrorism and safeguarding basic human rights. At a time when the Anti-Terror Law is now in place, our greatest perturbation perhaps should not be on what the context of the same per se, rather in the manner of how this will be delivered on the administrative, procedural and on the operational levels where all is a different matter in one blanket.

The Law is open to Legal Challenge

The opposition can always challenge the Anti-Terrorism Act in the Supreme Court. The Department of Justice must have fully reviewed the bill for the so-called potential violation of constitutional rights, before President Duterte signed it into law.

Some lawyers are alarmed over possible abuses, accordingly, of the poorly worded provisions of the law that they say could be used as weapons against people critical of the government policies. Other opposition congressmen feared that the measure would aggravate red tagging of left winged groups.

On the other hand, the current administration assured oppositions of this legislative measure and reassured the public that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse.

These issues shall be settled once and for all, if it reaches the hands of the Supreme Court.


Suggested Readings:

The Philippines' Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020: Five things to know

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