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The Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 championed by President Rodrigo Duterte is destined for failure. The law, which is meant to take a hardline stance combatting insurgencies in the Philippines, is yet another example of the deteriorating rule of law under the Duterte Administration and the nation’s failure to learn from the counterterrorism mistakes of its past. While the Philippines have routinely been the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific, relations have soured under the Duterte administration. In February, Duterte threatened to cancel the two-decades long standing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) if the U.S. refuses to quadruple its financial aid to the region. However, the nations’ current hardline tactics for combatting terrorism prove ineffective and US aid is only fueling Duterte’s repressive regime. It is time for the Biden Administration to acknowledge Duterte’s blatant human rights abuses by renouncing the new Anti-Terrorism Act in the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte signed the new law into effect on July 3, 2020, which expands the legal definitions of terrorism and carries a punishment of up to 12 years in prison. Outside of the usual targeting of violent acts, property damages, and attacks on infrastructure, the law further extends ‘terrorism’ to include “speeches, writings, proclamations, emblems, banners, and other representations” intended to intimidate the general public or, more importantly, the government. While the law claims it does not condemn activism or general protests, the language is strategically broad in order to criminalize intent.
Supporters of the law argue this new legislation does not diverge widely from those of other counties. More than 140 governments have passed similar anti-terrorism laws in the last 20 years, expanding legal definitions to combat the ever-evolving terrorist threat. However, this law follows in the footsteps of the Duterte administration’s preexisting track record for undercutting civil liberties, like free press, and the deteriorating rule of law in the Philippines. Duterte has routinely sought to arrest opposition leaders, whether senators or journalists, under the guise of unsubstantiated charges. Philippines’ human rights record has been on a steady decline under the current administration, with at least 8,600 Filipinos killed since 2016 in Duterte’s war on drugs. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is yet another tactic for the Duterte administration to erode civilian checks and balances, while violating standards on free speech and lawful detention.
Ultimately, this new counterterrorism effort is going to result in the prosecution or disillusionment of both progressive activists, viewed as communist fronts by the administration, or of Muslim citizens perceived as insurgent sympathizers. The Filipino government has long deployed “red-tagging,” the practice of labeling an individual as a communist or terrorist. However, red tagging has increased substantially under Duterte to prosecute both activists and party-opposition leaders, resulting in 78 deaths and 136 arrests last year. The administration’s crackdown on nonviolent civic action is pushing communities to seek out alternative routes for implementing changes. The Philippines has also increasingly caught fire regarding their blatant profiling of Muslims as likely terrorist, rooted in the long historical discrimination of the nation’s Muslim minority. This new anti-terrorism bill will only continue to undermine Philippines’ efforts of reconciliation by making it easier to target and profile Muslims, thus, further fueling ethnic grievances.
Currently, the Philippines’ approaches to counterterrorism has already caused massive amounts of suffering through displacement and broken peace processes and its militaristic tactics have only given birth to more aggressive splinter groups, such as Abu Sayyaf. For example, following the five-month siege of Marawi, heavy bombing by government forces not only drove out insurgents but resulted in the temporary displacement of 98% of Marawi’s population. Philippines’ delayed rehabilitation efforts in Marawi, where only 20-30% has been restored in the last three years, have caused massive levels of public disaffection, threatening even more militancy and radical views in the local population. The decades-long offensive against Abu Sayyaf has proved ineffective with insurgents carrying out both land and sea operations in 2020. Simply scaling up counterterrorism operations with the Anti-Terrorism Act will similarly fail without efforts to address the key structural causes for violence: bad governance and the historic grievances of the local population.
The U.S. is currently wasting both money and resources on a counterterrorism strategy that does not work, which will only be hindered more with the new Anti-Terrorism Act. The U.S. provided roughly $50 million a year in counterterrorism assistance between 2002 and 2016 that rewarded few long-lasting results. According to a Department of Defense report, the U.S. dished out a further $72.3 million for Philippines’ counterinsurgency efforts in 2020. However, Islamic-linked attacks have not only remained consistent in the region but have even increased in lethality in recent years. US aid is only reinforcing ineffectual tactics, causing more civilian casualties and increasing public distrust in the government. If the U.S. seeks a long-term stable solution to pro-Islamic State militants in the Philippines, then it must adopt big picture strategies.
The Biden Administration has built a platform centered on restoring American authority by advocating universal values of rule of law and democracy both domestic and abroad. Despite 37 petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act in the Supreme Court of the Philippines, President Biden has yet to take an official stance on the new legislature. President Biden should thus listen to Filipino human right activists and publicly condemn the implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act. The U.S. should redraft current counterterrorism strategies in the region to focus on governances and infrastructure rather than purely military aid. However, Biden must also be mindful of Filipino sensitivities toward interference by a former colonial power and provide incentives for democratic improvements in the region. The U.S. can do this by aligning efforts with core donor countries focused on democracy and governances in the Asia-Pacific, like Japan, Australia, and South Korea. The U.S. should also leverage international institutions and regional institutions, like ASEAN. Philippines’ counterterrorism strategies as they stand today will never work if the causal factors fueling public grievances remain intact. The Biden Administration must speak out now to save Filipino democracy for the future.
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