The Terror Beyond: Assessing The Securitization of the Anti-Terrorism Act
Photo Source: Interaksyon
Terrorism as an Existential Threat
In the midst of the Cold War, an interesting development in the study of security took place. The emergence of the Copenhagen school of thought which diverts from the traditional notion of security, and attempted to broaden the discussion of security by taking on issues that is beyond the scope of the military. Under this innovation, the labelling of threats, based on the magnitude and proximity to the object, was introduced. This process is called securitization – the determination of threats outside the mode of normal politics in order to legitimize the use of extraordinary measures.
The securitization process can be employed to any threat that states face every day. In the case of the Philippines, the perceived threat under the Duterte administration has been their long-standing problem with terrorism – which has evolved from abductions, armed attacks, and intensified bombings especially in the Southern part of the Philippines. With this, terrorism has been branded as an existential threat to the Philippine state. In order to address this problem, the government had urgently passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, gaining utmost outrage and criticisms both at home and in the international community. The decades-long threat of terrorism in the Philippines led to its securitization and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which brings its own set of repercussions.
Terrorism in the Philippines
The Philippines has faced the constant threats of attack from non-state armed groups (NSAG) involved in insurgency attacks, illegitimate violent attacks, and suicide bombings. While numerous groups have carried out acts of terrorism, only two have become prominent to become labelled as terrorist organizations: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), both operating in the Southern parts of the Philippines. Their grievances can be traced back to the Spanish colonial period, when Christians drove out Moros in their own lands. The Southern parts of the Philippines had been deemed as a highly militarized zone, due to the influx of armed attacks in the area. While the nature of conflict and the fighting strategies have evolved, what remains to be consistent is the Muslim’s clamor to be separate from the Philippine government and form an autonomous Muslim region.
In May 2017, government forces in the province of Marawi were caught in an armed attack with the ASG and ISIL-affiliated group, the Maute. Their clash ensued for over five months, prompting locals to flee their homes and eventually seek for the help of the Philippine government. The clash between the government forces and the two aforementioned groups had been considered a major humanitarian crisis, displacing almost about 300,000 families with no food and shelter. Almost four year after the incident, rebuilding Marawi continues to this day. This event has prompted the national government to expedite the process of implementing the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Securitization of the Anti-Terrorism Act
On June 2020 – four months in the COVID-19 pandemic – the House of Representatives have passed an anti-terrorism act into a law. It amended the existing 2007 Human Security Act by adding a new scope and definition to the word ‘terrorism.’ The law includes a wide array of possible offenses such as “engaging in acts intended to endanger an individual’s life”, “intention to damage public property”, and “interfere with critical infrastructure” or generally, actions with the objective to intimidate the government. Under the new law, an Anti-Terrorism Council will be convened, composing of eight members from President Duterte’s cabinet. The council will determine those inciting terror or creating risks to public safety.
When the law took effect, the Philippine government had to justify its ratification – by declaring the administration’s commitment to the protection of civil and political liberties and human rights. The government defended the law from criticisms, claiming that law-abiding citizens are not at risk and that the law only targets insurgency movements, or those who are deemed a disturbance to the normal circulation of life. The purpose of the Anti-Terrorism Act is to protect human lives, civil and political rights of the citizens - from the threat of terrorism in the Philippines.
However, the passing of the controversial law was met with doubts from its relevant audience. The controversy begins at the law’s definition of terrorism. The new anti-terrorism law builds on the 2007 Human Security Act by criminalizing deeds connected with the planning, support, and execution of terrorist actions. It also criminalizes actions intended to intimidate the government, or destroy society in general. According to human rights groups, the vagueness of the definition and wide-ranging acts of terrorism can have a chilling effect that may risk grave abuse of discretion and subsequently curtail civil and political liberties. With the members of the Anti-Terrorism Council predominantly coming from the president’s Cabinet, guarantee of fairness is highly unlikely. The council would have the capacity to deem any form of civil unrest as intimidation against the government, and use the law to detain activists, the press, political opposition, and such. The law also violates personal privacy as it allows wiretapping and surveillance of individuals if suspected to be associated with terrorist groups. While the law aims to protect the Filipino people from the threat of terrorism, it has been met with backlash from the very people it was meant to protect due to its vagueness and unconstitutionality of some of its terms.
The securitization of the Anti-Terrorism Act by the Philippine government is a testament to its priorities – to focus on terrorism, over the containment of the virus that hurts not only the economy, but the society in general as well. Although the present state of the Act is in limbo due to the number of petitions lobbied against its implementation, the law continues to crack down on people who are branded by the government as terrorists. This is an example of the abuses of power that the government is employing in order to keep the people in check. It then further begs the question whether the Philippine government itself may be the cause of people’s insecurity. Whose interest is the Anti-Terrorism Act is resting upon – the interest of those in power or of the people? In the end, while nothing is still certain for the future of this law, the people must remain vigilant and hold onto truths that maintain the fine line between those engaged in terrorism and those who are just speaking their grievances against the government.
Erick Joshua Lagon obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Santo Tomas. Currently, he is taking up Master of Arts in International Studies – Major in European Studies in De La Salle University.