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State repression in the Philippines during COVID-19 and beyond

If draconian measures such as the Philippines’ Republic Act No 11479 are left unchallenged and unchecked, who will be left to fight inequalities as the pandemic continues?

Leanne Sajor
7 July 2020
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte updates the nation on the government's efforts in addressing COVID-19 in Davao City on June 4, 2020.
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Wikicommons/Joey Dalumpines/Presidential photo. Some rights reserved.

As COVID-19 continues to spread in the Philippines, its health workers have been in the frontline of the battle to provide urgent care and save lives despite inadequate staffing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the pandemic is not the only grave threat the country faces: on 3 July, a harsh anti-terrorism bill was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippines’ human rights defenders, activists, scholars, journalists, lawyers and organisers now face a formidable battle to defend civil and democratic rights in the wake of legislation intended to silence any and all voices critical of the government.

The Anti-Terrorism Act

Republic Act No 11479, which became law last week despite “strong cautionary comments” from within President Rodrigo Duterte’s own Cabinet and intense opposition from civil society organisations, is an amendment to the Philippines’ Human Security Act of 2007. The Senate passed a version of the bill in February 2020, apparently with no consultation with human rights advocates or the broader public. Despite the opposition it attracted, the bill was approved by the country’s House of Representatives on 3 June, after being certified urgent by Duterte, who then had 30 days either to veto it or approve it: just days ago, to no one’s surprise, he did the latter. Plainly put, the law has the potential to criminalise anyone in the country’s rich civil society networks who is working to address the root causes of inequalities, to speak up for human rights, and to defend democracy.

Long before this new law came into being, Duterte’s government has drawn criticism at home and abroad for its repressive, militaristic “War on Drugs” and its neglect of Filipinos’ fundamental social and economic rights. Popularly described as the "terror law”, it is seen by critics as the institutionalisation of the hallmarks of Duterte’s reign: a state-led, systemic attack on dissent and democratic rights and freedoms. Moreover, lawyers, legislators and human rights advocates have called attention to parts of the law that are unconstitutional.

Its broad definition of “terrorism” will allow draconian interpretations by the government with the goal of silencing any criticism or dissent. Section 9 of the Act states that “inciting terrorism” can be committed “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners, or other representations of the same”, and it is punishable by 12 years in prison. Human Rights Watch has called attention to this section of the law, which notably leaves “incitement” undefined, as posing “a danger to freedom of the media and freedom of expression by providing an open-ended basis for prosecuting speech”. This is especially important in the context of the Philippines, which has ranked among the world’s worst five countries on the Global Impunity Index, a report that looks at the data on journalists murdered with complete impunity, nearly every year since the index began in 2008.

Devoid of accountability or any checks and balances via the nation’s justice system, the law will also usher in a new “Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC)”, comprised of unelected officials appointed by the executive. The ATC will become an unfettered, unaccountable arbiter of justice and will have the power to designate people and organisations as “terrorists”, to make arrests without judicial warrant, and to detain people without charge for up to 24 days. This is eight times longer than what had been allowed under the previous law.

Section 4 of the law includes language that exempts advocacy, work stoppages, protests, industrial or mass action “and other similar exercises of civil and political rights”, provided that these activities are “not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety”. But as it is left to the ATC to determine what constitutes “serious risk”, it is susceptible to the abuse of authority, especially when safeguards and oversight are reduced. Furthermore, Section 10 of the law states that “recruitment, propaganda or providing material support to ‘terrorists’ can all be charged to Filipinos living abroad”, thereby extending surveillance and monitoring to Filipinos living overseas and to those who are members of the diaspora community.

Inequalities and human rights in the Philippines

This unprecedented legislative move must also be seen in the context of the Philippines’ status as one of Southeast Asia’s most socio-economically unequal countries. The most recent World Bank GINI Index shows that it ranks highest in the region, at 44.4, while available data for neighbouring countries put Malaysia at 41 and Indonesia at 39.0. An Asian Development Bank study reports that the richest 10% of Filipino families earn a third of the country’s total income.

The same report shows that inequalities in the Philippines are not confined to income disparities, but extend to other critical areas including land distribution, welfare and human development. World Bank data indicate that in 2015, 6.6% of the country’s population were “extremely poor” (living below US$1.90/day) and only 34.7% were “economically secure” (between US$5.50 and US$15 a day).[1] Bearing in mind the obscenely low levels at which the World Bank sets its poverty yardstick, this dire situation is compounded by the inadequacies in public healthcare, education and social safety nets that are exacerbated by debt encumbrance, chronic corruption and reforms prescribed by adherence to the tenets of neoliberal globalisation. Even segments of the population deemed “economically secure” by the World Bank are now living in relative precarity as inequality deepens throughout the country.[Ibid.]

Put plainly, the Philippines’ rampant poverty is a gross violation of human rights; it is a kind of economic violence visited on thousands of people. The new law will push those violations and violence further still: it is the most unrelenting attack yet on democratic rights and the civil society spaces where advocates, organisers and activists are working to amplify the issues of marginalised, poor and working-class Filipinos. Republic Act No 11479 has extended and enshrined in law what was already a widespread practice by Duterte’s government: the outright criminalisation of rights defenders.

Republic Act No 11479 has extended and enshrined in law what was already a widespread practice by Duterte’s government: the outright criminalisation of rights defenders.

What has been happening in the Philippines, and the even darker days this law will usher in, has not gone unnoticed internationally. A United Nations press release detailing a recent report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) on the Philippines states that “human rights defenders have been subject to verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment for nearly 20 years... The vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics… are being increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.”

Karapatan, an NGO alliance working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines, has documented the charging of nearly 1,000 activists and political dissenters with common crimes, with 619 people unjustly in prison, in stark confirmation of the dangerous context in which the Anti-Terrorism Act is being pursued. Karapatan wrote in a statement that it “believes that terrorism can be addressed, not through a defective militarist approach that our State forces to employ, but through the pursuit of a just and lasting peace, tackling the roots of the problems of social injustice and inequality, and through genuine respect for people’s rights”. Arguments such as these have fallen on deaf ears.

During COVID-19, the criminalisation of people seeking to fulfil their economic and social rights, including access to food, water and work, and especially amongst urban poor citizens, has been a daily occurrence. The Philippines’ social news network Rappler reported, “As of June 8, the police have arrested a total of 193,779 people for quarantine violations since March 17. Of this number, it had charged 58,848 and detained 15, 307. As of writing, 2,637 remain in congested jails.”

Quarantine protocols instituted as public health measures during the pandemic have disproportionately affected poor communities. Duterte’s administration has used a militarised approach to enforcing public health protocols, with high numbers of arrests in poor communities for breaking lockdown measures as people look for work to pay for food, housing and utilities. In the Philippines, state repression targets not only human rights defenders and activists, but also poor and marginalised communities who are criminalised simply for attempting to survive.

In the Philippines, state repression targets not only human rights defenders and activists, but also poor and marginalised communities who are criminalised simply for attempting to survive.

Coronavirus and control: when a pandemic becomes a tool of repression

The intensifying political repression in the Philippines is just one example of a global wave in which COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to criminalise and delegitimise dissent, often through militarisation, heightened policing, or the disruption of democratic processes. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban suspended elections and gained the authority to rule by decree. Suspensions of fundamental rights took place in Cambodia when the state claimed emergency powers to address COVID-19. Serbia has seen militarised responses to the pandemic, and threats of military intervention are unfolding in Brazil. In the United States, President Donald Trump called for the “domination” of protestors through militarised responses to uprisings demanding justice for the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade, among others, as part of a larger struggle for racial justice for Black lives, who are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 and police violence. China has recently passed a similar wide-ranging security law for Hong Kong that could criminalise protestors and will limit the city’s autonomy.[4]

As the global pandemic continues, the deepening crisis of socio-economic inequalities has become more and more impossible to ignore. But sharp attention must also be paid to the ways in which political inequalities are being exacerbated. The Philippines’ new anti-terrorism law, and all other state responses that aim to shrink civil society space when it is most needed, must be loudly condemned and fought against. As uprisings around the world from Hong Kong to the US have shown, we are living through a crucial and unprecedented moment, where we have the opportunity to move the needle in larger increments towards a more just and equitable world.

How do we hold governments accountable when responses to the current, unprecedented crisis fail – and even punish – the most vulnerable and marginalised?

This achievement will only come through the defeat of new and potentially permanent measures by governments bent on institutionalising repression. Human rights defenders, activists and organisers have been serving on a multiplicity of frontlines – including the fights against neoliberal economic policies and shrinking civil society space – so that all of us can access fundamental rights to health care, education, work and safe working conditions, housing and other social services and protections.

Currently, Filipino lawyers and human rights defenders are pressing the Supreme Court to strike down the new anti-terrorism law. The fight is not over, but the battle lines drawn by repressive states are closing in. How do we hold governments accountable when responses to the current, unprecedented crisis fail – and even punish – the most vulnerable and marginalised? If draconian measures such as the Philippines’ Republic Act No 11479 are left unchallenged and unchecked, who will be left to fight inequalities as the pandemic continues? Who will be left to fight for human rights when it ends?

[1] World Bank. 2018. Making growth work for the poor: a poverty assessment for the Philippines. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

Leanne thanks Cristina Palabay and Reileen Dulay for their feedback and inspiration, and to Filipinos everywhere who continue to fight for a more equitable and democratic Philippines.

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