By Walden Bello*
The passage of the Anti-Terror Bill-now incongruously rebaptized the “Human Security Act of 2007”– marks the end of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s penance for withdrawing the Philippine military contingent from Iraq following the kidnapping of Angelo de la Cruz in July 2004. Caught between tremendous pressure from de la Cruz’ compatriots to save a man who had come to symbolize the Filipino diaspora, and stern warnings from Washington not to “give in” to Cruz’s abductors, Arroyo chose to conciliate the electorate.
That miffed George W. Bush, who sees everything in very personal terms and in black and white, and he made his displeasure felt over the last two and a half years.
Atoning for the Angelo de la Cruz affair was at the front and center of the administration’s appalling decision to violate the country’s judicial processes and hand over Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, a man convicted of rape by a Philippine court, to the US Embassy.
Atonement was also the reason for Arroyo’s giving the US a free hand in dealing with Muslim movements in Mindanao, letting it call the shots in a counter-insurgency campaign where the Philippine military effectively functions as a subordinate force, much like the pre-war Constabulary commanded by American officers.
Contrary to the claims of lawmakers who chose to cave in to pressure from the administration and US Embassy, the legislation severely weakens civil liberties Warrantless arrest and detention for an initial period of three days is now legal, and this can be extended so long as “written approval” can be obtained from a judge or official of the government’s Human Rights Commission. One can be sure that there will be no shortage of compliant judges or commissioners that will oblige the military and the police.
The act creates an Anti-Terrorism Council made up of the heads or senior officials of the key state security agencies, vests it with sweeping powers with inadequate judicial oversight, and allows it to operate with an extraordinarily broad definition of terrorism that includes insurrection, coup d’etat, murder, piracy, kidnapping, arson, unlawful possession of firearms, when such actions are seen as “sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand.”
One need not exert too much imagination to see how the terrorist brush can be made to cover people engaging in legitimate acts of resistance to abuse of authority or outright illegal exercise of power-for instance, individuals who organize people power actions involving massive civil disobedience or soldiers who declare they will withdraw support from authority that is assumed or exercised illegitimately, such as elective office that is gained through fraudulent elections.
The Anti-Terror Act, make no mistake, is but one more step in a process that criminalizes legitimate dissent, erodes traditional legal protections, and strengthens the authoritarian aspects of the state. We only have to see how in the US, the passage of the Patriot Act went hand in hand with the legalization of torture, the practice of indefinite detention with no legal recourse for those detained, systematic violation of the provisions of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war, and “extraordinary rendition,” that is, turning over to the authority of another state persons suspected of terrorist crimes.
The section on extraordinary rendition reveals the provenance of this bill. In Orwellian fashion, Sec. 57 carries the title “Ban on Extraordinary Rendition” then proceeds to legitimize it by specifying that extraordinary rendition of a suspect to another country (read: the United States) may be allowed “if his or her testimony is needed for terrorist related police investigations or judicial trials in the said country” and respect for the person’s rights is officially assured (something that US authorities would undoubtedly be quick to give!) This law-abiding superpower has gotten into trouble in Europe for literally snatching suspected terrorists from the street and flying them to the United States. Not surprisingly, it has been pressing for more effective legal mechanisms to substitute for this controversial practice, and our Congress, by passing the Anti-Terror Act, has just provided it with an example that it can cite as a precedent for other countries.
But if the pressure to pass this act came from Washington, it was not with reluctance that the Arroyo administration complied. With its lack of respect for legal processes and democratic institutions like the ballot and its insatiable desire to accumulate power in the hands of the presidency at the expense of countervailing powers like the judiciary, translating the repressive bill into law was something that Malacanang did willingly, if not with pleasure. Satisfying Washington jibed perfectly with the administration’s own project of creating a president-centered national security state where legitimate dissent is steadily but inexorably criminalized and the military is increasingly invested with absolute power in the realm of internal security.
President Arroyo may be a penitent but she is a joyful penitent.
We are witnessing the deepening of a national tragedy. At a time that our leaders should be exerting all their efforts to protect activists, journalists, workers, and farmers by decisively reining in the state security agencies, the president and a compliant Congress are presenting the soldiers and the police with one more powerful instrument of repression.
*Walden Bello is professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines and executive director of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South.