"The critics are confusing the public."
Something strange is happening on the way to the President’s signing of the Anti-Terrorism Law. After almost everybody, including some of the most vocal oppositors, acknowledged the need for an anti-terrorism law to replace the useless Human Security Act passed some years back, and after a clear majority of members of the House of Representatives (HoR) adopted and approved on third and final reading the Senate version of the bill before it adjourned last week, a deluge of “protests” from all kinds of groups prompted some 20 or so members to retract their earlier Yes/Abstain votes.
The idea, it seems to me, is to wrap this new bill into all sorts of objections or, as some sectors advised concerns for further study, to delay if not altogether tear it up to smithereens. That brouhaha over the #DefendUPLB account which is now turning up to be a contrived effort to draw public ire over the bill is instructive.
In any event, this waylaying of an otherwise more robust effort to counter terrorism which has taken different hues, forms and intensity through the years is not only unfortunate but a disservice to our country. After all almost all countries in the world including the US and other Western liberal democracies have adopted their own anti-terrorism laws. In ASEAN, if we go by the record, we have the most indeterminate if not ineffective human security law.
As retired Justice Adolf Azcuna noted the current Human Security Act of 2007 “proved inutile and, worse, caused confusion vis-a-vis other laws such as the Revised Penal Code and the Philippine Humanitarian Law.” He noted that the existing law is “useless because of a provision that imposes very heavy fines daily on police officers who violate the safeguards so in the end police officers tend not to act at all.”
What exactly are the objections to the bill, anyway? One is the definition of terrorism which in the view of the critics is so broad and prone to abuse. Well, we would like to see their own definition as we agree that we must have a clear, proper and realistic one considering that there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism. For now, most UN members are using the UN Security Council Resolution 1566 definition which states in part that “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act which constitute the offenses within the scope of or as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.” This definition is carried almost verbatim in the new law and for the most part in the old.
Secondly, the critics are crying foul over the possible “restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly” under this proposed law. But what restrictions are they talking about when under this law there is an effort to balance the exercise of that right with those provided for under the Constitution and other existing laws. The only restrictions ensue as follows: “a) when necessary to safeguard national security, public order, public health or morals or respect for the rights of others; b) should be proportionate using the least intrusive means available and c) limited to speech presenting a ‘clear and present danger’ to one of such interests.” These safeguards follow internationally accepted standards of conduct.
In fact, the suggested proportionate means by which that balancing should ensue are enrolled in the bill as it provides for an advisory (council) act to declare one as a terrorist and even the preventive detention action is reviewable by the Court of Appeals. There are no such safeguards under the more stringent Internal Security Act (ISA) of Singapore and even under the reformed Malaysian ISA.
Finally, the repeated incendiary argument is about warrantless arrests and the period of detention. We have to make clear that there are already a number of laws regarding such kind of arrests which the critics should study to avoid confusing themselves and misinforming the public. There are clear instances when such can be undertaken and the new law incorporates the same.
Now, as far as detention is concerned, the new law calls for detention without charges against terrorists for a period of 14 days extendable for another ten days. This is a far cry from those of other countries like Singapore and Malaysia which call for detention without charges for two years, extendable for another two. As Justice Azcuna noted “..it is a balancing act and should be resorted to in extreme cases and never against non-derogable human rights such as right to life and the right against torture..”
Of course, the critics will now say this is prone to abuse. They will ask: How can we trust the security forces? Well, as we have always been saying, all laws are prone to abuse if the citizenry is not vigilant and let the abusers go their merry ways. There are more ways than one to restrain if not completely do away with such abuses. A vigilant citizenry and a trained and responsibly motivated security force will be the principal antidotes to any abuses. And, of course, we have to strengthen our institutions of governance especially the Judiciary to serve as the beacon of freedom and the counterweight to any forms of derogation, neglect or incompetence on the part of the two other branches of government.