‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, but a detailed analysis of the human rights cost of the fast-expanding security state all over the world suggests otherwise.
The New Normal
Governments have rejected the view that they should provide security so people can enjoy their rights, and adopted the view that they must restrict rights to provide security. Many countries have made it easier to invoke and extend states of emergency and other emergency measures; what should be exceptional and temporary powers have increasingly become permanently embedded in ordinary criminal law.
Overly broad definitions of terrorism are a big part of the problem. Because there is no universally agreed definition, states and international bodies have created their own. But in that process, definitions of terrorism have become increasingly vague, so that they can be arbitrarily applied, meaning law-abiding citizens can be subjected to unwarranted surveillance, administrative orders which restrict their liberties, intrusive searches, arbitrary arrests, red-tagging or even worse, extrajudicial executions.
In the context of ‘countering terrorism’, states must ensure the respect of international human rights and humanitarian law. Currently, the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of Republic Act 11479 or the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in the Philippines is in violation of international standards on human rights and counter-terrorism.
The law risks granting further excessive powers to the Philippine executive, which has presided over serious human rights violations in the country under President Duterte. The Duterte administration continues to pursue its “war on drugs” despite the tens of thousands already killed by the police and by armed individuals. Attacks against human rights defenders and critics of the government – including activists, journalists, lawyers, church leaders, trade union leaders, and individuals and groups affiliated with the political left – have increased under a climate of impunity; they have repeatedly been ‘red-tagged’ and accused of being “terrorists” because of their perceived links to communist groups.
A disturbing picture is emerging in which unchecked powers are trampling freedoms we have all taken for granted.
The Act defines terrorism as:
- Engaging in acts intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to any person or endangers a person’s life;
- Engaging in acts intended to cause extensive damage or destruction to a government or public facility, public place, or private property;
- Engaging in acts intended to cause extensive interference with, damage, or destruction to critical infrastructure;
- Developing, manufacturing, possessing, acquiring, transporting, supplying, or using weapons; and
- Releasing dangerous substances or causing fire, floods or explosions when the purpose is to intimidate the general public, create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear, provoke or influence by intimidation the government or any international organization, seriously destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, economic, or social structures in the country, or create a public emergency or seriously undermine public safety
Under the law, persons who propose, incite, conspire, and participate in the planning, training, and facilitation an offence under the act, as well as those who provide support to ‘terrorists’ as defined under the act, or recruit members of a ‘terrorist organisation’, could face life imprisonment without parole.
The law also punishes the following offences with 12 years’ imprisonment:
- Threatening to commit ‘terrorism’
- Inciting others or proposing to commit ‘terrorism’
- Voluntarily and knowingly joining any ‘terrorist group’
- Acting as an accessory in the commission of ‘terrorism’
The law allows suspects to be detained without a judicial warrant of arrest for 14 days and can be extended by 10 more days, and placed under surveillance for 60 days, that can also be extended by up to 30 days, by the police or military.
The phenomenon of red-tagging has been happening for decades now but has intensified in the last few years under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, following the breakdown of peace talks between the government and the CPP in 2017. Duterte’s subsequent Executive Order (EO) 70 provides for a “Whole-of-Nation approach in defeating the Local Communist Terrorist Groups” and led to the creation of the NTF-ELCAC. Observers point to this moment in time as the beginning of a renewed campaign of red-tagging, threats and harassment against human rights defenders, political activists, lawyers, trade unionists and other targeted groups perceived to be affiliated with the progressive left.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights along with human rights organizations have called for the immediate end to this approach, expressing concern that the government’s dangerously broad counter-insurgency strategy has led to an increase in human rights violations against human rights defenders and political activists across the country.
Under international law and standards, the Philippines has an obligation to ensure the protection of the rights of all, including the rights to life, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which the Philippines is a state party. Ensuring that human rights defenders and civil society activists are able to undertake their professional activities free from harassment, threats, and harm is an essential component of the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.
A chilling effect on freedom of expression
Some governments have used the threat of terrorism to target people legally exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. These very freedoms come under regular attack by governments that want to stifle criticism.
Defending freedom of expression has always been a core part of Amnesty International’s work and is vital in holding the powerful to account. In parallel with tightening the laws affecting the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, there is also the threat of a vastly expanded surveillance powers of law enforcement agencies. These expanded powers can be used against people engaged in organizing and participating in peaceful protests.
Innocent until proven guilty?
Some people can be charged with otherwise-lawful activity simply because the authorities believe they will engage in criminal activity in the future. The new Anti-Terror Law criminalizes so-called preparatory acts. In some countries, this includes things like travelling to certain places, or even more remotely, preparing to travel.
Governments around the world have also invested in “pre-crime” initiatives and become increasingly reliant on administrative orders or measures which restrict people’s freedom of movement and other rights. This has led to many people being punished without having committed any crime, undermining the presumption of innocence, a basic principle of criminal law.
In these cases information is usually kept secret, meaning that people subjected to these restrictive measures are not even able to adequately defend themselves. Some countries , like in the Philippines, laws have been passed allowing authorities to detain terrorism suspects for extended periods without charge. In many cases, charges are never laid.
This affects us all
Fear, alienation and prejudice are steadily chipping away at the values of fairness, equality and non-discrimination, the very values on which human rights are founded.
The Philippine government must urgently renew its commitment to upholding international human rights obligations while countering terrorism. The steady regression in so many aspects of rights protection must end.
Unless we act, we risk our rights becoming victims of dangerously disproportionate powers that are supposed to protect us.