Outlook for Manila’s Anti-Terror Law

The Philippine Anti-Terrorism Law, Republic Act No. 9372, entitled “The Human Security Act of 2007”, went into effect mid-July amidst a lot of hand-wringing on the part of those who fear it will be used to stifle legitimate dissent. An early challenge to its constitutionality, initiated by lawyer and human-rights advocate Soli Santos, was set aside by the Supreme Court for being premature. No actual case has arisen on the basis of which the High Court can exercise its power to review and rule on the validity of the statute.

For now, the public mood seems to be: wait and see. The international community, notably our strongest ally, the United States, sees the law as a step in the right direction. However, the general view abroad seems to be that the law is weak, although better than nothing.

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal took the Philippine legislature to task for crafting a law that tips the balance to far in favor of terror suspects at the expense of national security. Overall, the law lays out 22 penalties for law enforcement, and only four for terror suspects. The 3-day detention without charge provision is supposedly too short to be effective. And given the country’s recent history and well-founded reputation for being a haven for would-be global terrorists, the law was long overdue and should therefore be brought into play without further delay .

The Americans believe that it is impossible for any democratic government to beef up its anti-terror arsenal without controversy, and it will predictably have its detractors. Nevertheless, the Philippine government should show some spine and use its new legal weapon against the likes of the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya, not to mention the longest-running insurgencies on the planet. This point is well taken and there are many outside observers who believe that the country’s lawmakers should indeed reconsider the HSA – by making it stronger and giving it more teeth.

But this ignores the fact that in the Philippines, it is not the law per se which is often found wanting, but the manner of its implementation. Retired Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz has made the perfectly valid point that there are enough laws in the books to protect us against terrorism without having to rely on the HSA or, as he calls it “the Histrionic Security Act of 2007”.Current laws are sufficient to effectively combat terrorism , if only the government’s law enforcement agencies were more diligent and scrupulous in their work. As Justice Cruz sees it, the provisions of the HSA are totally unnecessary and overwrought, and are “blank bullets in a theatrical gun intended merely to impress the gullible with loud sound effects”.

But there’s nothing theatrical in how individual lives will be impacted once the government decides to implement the law. The question is when will the brunt of its force will be felt and by whom.

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