Assessing President Duterte’s Controversial New Anti-Terror Law

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On 3 July 2020, amid mounting challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill into law. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which replaced the Human Security Act of 2007, has already been widely criticized by right-wing parties as well as international organizations such as Amnesty International. Opponents have concerns regarding the implementation of the bill, unconstitutional provisions in the law, and the potential risk of abuse by the authorities. The threat of extremist elements in the region of the Sulu Archipelago, a stronghold of the ISIS-aligned terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, has always pushed the Philippines’ government to take strong actions against rising extremism. Such a need became more obvious after the Marawi siege in May 2017. With the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2020, President Duterte will be taking an important step toward curbing extremism. But a diminished trust level among the public for key institutions and the government could act to obstruct progress.

So far, around eight groups filed petitions in the Philippine’s Supreme Court objecting to the constitutionality of the law. Many critics are also questioning the timing, because during the ongoing pandemic, when people are expecting a fair and comprehensive relief package from the government, getting an updated law with potentially unconstitutional provisions may cause an uproar among the electorate.

Ranked ninth in the Global Terrorism Index of 2019, domestic terrorism and insurgency is not a new phenomenon for the Philippines. The world’s 13th most populous country has suffered from terrorism since 1968, when the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) adopted the stagism strategy of socialist revolution via protracted people’s war, forming their guerilla military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), a year later. Since then, the Philippines has experienced numerous attacks at the hands of communist and Islamic separatists: the Hijacking of Philippine Airlines BAC-111 in 1976 by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Bojinka plot of 1994, and the siege of Marawi in 2017 by Maute rebels, to name a few. For decades, the Philippines’ government handled terrorism cases without any anti-terror law, blurring the distinction between prosecuting terrorists, government critics, and secessionists. This led to a huge public outcry and demands for a comprehensive approach to fighting terrorism. Thus, the Philippines government in 2007 passed Republic Act 9372 or Human Security Act of 2007, signed by the then President Gloria Arroyo with the aim of tackling militants, especially in the southern Philippines. HSA 2007 was seen more as an act to appease the United States and as a response to the US declaration of a “war on terror” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This law came under fire because of its overly broad definition of terrorism, which defined terrorism as “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.” Critics feared a vague definition could give the government an upper hand over the opposition and also raise concerns over potential human rights abuses. This law also contained some provisions that created implementation concerns, such as defining high penalties or ten to twelve years of imprisonment, leading to mistaken arrests and violations of a detainee’s rights. In the years that followed, HSA 2007 remained a bone of contention between critics and the authorities.

Following two decades as Davao City Mayor, Rodrigo Duterte started his presidential campaign in 2016. Though the approach during his mayoral term helped make Davao one of the safest in the Philippines, it also raised questions of human rights abuses. As per Human Rights Watch, the Coalition Against Summary Execution documented 814 death squad killings in Davao City from mid-1998 to early 2009. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, shoring up the government’s capacity to tackle both communist and Islamist extremism remained paramount for President Rodrigo and his leftist party, The Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban). His campaign was constructed around promises to wipe out corruption, drugs, and militancy from the country within three to six months. The 2016 presidential election results saw him victorious with a remarkable majority of votes.

Duterte combined his long experience with his ‘Davao Model’ and a hardline approach to law and order while in office. The strategy became clear with his declaration of a “war on drugs” and the launching of “Oplan Tokhang” (Operation Knock and Plead), which gave a free hand to the Philippines National Police (PNP) for conducting its operations and killing suspects in case they resisted. Research by Human Right Watch shows evidence of unlawful killings of mostly urban poor, and of power abuses by the legal authorities and unidentified vigilantes and/or non-state actors, who were likely backed by political elites, during the operations carried out under the anti-drug crackdown. In the period between July 2016 and November 2017, around 20,000 drug related killings were recorded by the government. President Duterte’s “Oplan Tokhang” received worldwide criticism from humanitarian agencies for arbitrary and extrajudicial killings.

Duterte’s approach toward fighting drugs and extremism faced not just international criticism but also harmed trust among the public for government policies. Governance limitations due to fragmented geography, decades of fights with New People’s Army’s guerillas and mounting Islamic extremism were the rationale behind the constitutional reform strategy of Duterte’s government. President Duterte’s campaign promise to eradicate terrorism took shape in the new Anti-Terrorism Bill 2020, which replaced HSA 2007. The new law defines terrorism as an act intending to cause death or injury, damage to the government or the private property or use weapons to “spread a message of fear” or intimidate the government. The law creates an ambiguity in understanding the concept of terrorism; most critics view it as a power grab under the pretext of national security and the weaponization of the judicial system for politically motivated arrests.

Citing a rise in terror activities, the need for a strict approach to curb extremism is sine qua non for the Philippine’s government. The siege of Marawi in 2017 by Maute rebels took a heavy toll on government forces; it took five months for the authorities to take back the city, with 165 deaths and over 1000 injured on their side. On top of that, 360,000 people were also displaced during the conflict. The resettlement of displaced people is still a lingering problem for the Philippine government. After the Marawi siege, from the period between July 2018 to November 2019, the Philippines experienced six suicide bombings, mainly perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf, an IS-link terror faction. The revival of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB; a failed peace deal of 2014 between the Aquino’s government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)) after its renaming as Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and it’s ratification after two rounds of plebiscite in January and February 2019, shows the willingness of Duterte’s government to stabilize the situation in a peaceful manner. In the same year with the peaceful implementation of BOL, the Bangsamoro region has attracted big investors like Lamitan Agri-Business Corporation (LABCO) to engage in Cavendish banana plantations worth PHP1.8 billion in Lamitan City, Basilan province; JMI Sand and Gravel Truck Services Corporation, which invested PHP1.4 billion in sand and gravel project located in Gang, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao; Maguindanao Corn Development (MCD) DSA-1 Corporation which is pursuing a modern yellow corn production project costing PHP 515 million located in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao; Hong Kong Feng Sheng Heritage Philippines Inc. (HK FSH) based in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur investing PHP100 million to establish an abaca fiber processing plant; Wao Development Corporation (WDC) investing PHP 306 million for a new pineapple packing plant in Wao Municipality, Lanao del Sur, to name a few. This investment trend within just the first year year shows the region’s potential to emerge as an agro giant, which could be a boon for an otherwise suffering economy.

But a sense of peace denial from the extremist side, especially after the IS resurgence in the region, has forced Duterte to throw his weight behind a reformed terrorism bill. The protesters of the new anti-terror bill fear that the provisions in the bill give the government unsupervised power over the citizens of the country. The bill will create an anti-terror council composed of executives appointed by the president himself. This council is authorized to arrest individuals without warrant, detain without charge for up to 24 days before presenting them in front of judicial authority, and authorize 90 days of surveillance and wiretaps. The scope of definition of terrorism is so vast that it fails to distinguish and separate among government’s critics, criminals and real terrorists. Right-wing groups and human rights activists fear that the anti-terror council working under the direct supervision of the president will wrongfully take advantage of the grey area and conduct arbitrary arrests of anyone found to be opposing the government or sympathizing with the communist agenda. Individuals convicted on the basis of the new definitions of “terrorism” will face up to life in prison without parole. The law also labels the act of inciting others  to commit terrorism “by the means of speeches, proclamations, writings, graffiti, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end” a criminal offense, without defining incitement. Critics feared this to be directly affecting the freedom of expression of individuals and also of the media. Speech will be subject to prosecution, as the anti-terrorism council will be the sole judge to determine the level of threat and the convicted will face up to 12 years in prison. The active media houses can face the same fate as ABS-CBN News & Rappler if the council labels broadcast news as “serious risk” to the government. The tried and tested method of infesting power in one council rather than improving the current system can pose a risk to democratic character of the country.

It seems that the President’s policies are inviting repression. His “war on drugs” had already claimed the lives of more than 20,000 of his fellow countrymen. This law can create a situation whereby authorities backed by the president may not feel liable for their actions and can abuse their significant powers.

The current anti-terror law was already implemented on 18th July despite protests from international organizations and local human rights groups. The fears and concerns of these groups could see the Philippines government facing growing dissent amid a distressing nationwide lockdown due to the current pandemic situation. Terror outfits like the New People’s Army, Abu Sayyaf, or other active terrorist organizations in the country can try to take advantage of public protests to manipulate and recruit more locals into their organization. With the country’s economy expected to lose some 3% to 4% of GDP growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people protesting out in the streets and terrorist groups getting stronger would be the last thing the Duterte cabinet needs right now. Moreover, with the Philippines’ fragmented geography, obstructions in governance and implementation of the new anti-terror law will be inevitable. Should implementation of the new law remain unchecked and policing not brought under public control, the result could be horrific for an already shrinking democratic space within the Philippines.

However, only time will tell if President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-terror gambit will pay off.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of or any institutions with which the authors are associated.

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