MANILA - International and local rights groups on Friday condemned President Rodrigo Duterte's signing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, warning that the human rights situation in the Philippines could worsen even as some vowed to fight the legislation.
"By signing the anti-terrorism bill into law, President [Rodrigo] Duterte has pushed Philippines democracy into an abyss. The law threatens to significantly worsen the human rights situation in the Philippines, which has nosedived since the catastrophic “war on drugs” began 4 years ago," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
He was referring to the Duterte administration's campaign against illegal drugs, which has drawn international condemnation over alleged summary killings. Government has several times defended its drug war, saying those slain in police operations had violently resisted arrest.
The New York-based group said the law would allow "systematic targeting" against political critics, opponents and civilians "who dare to speak out."
"The law threatens increased 'red tagging' of activists, journalists, and social media users, with dire effects for freedom of expression. Foreign governments should publicly denounce this development, which amounts to a stealth declaration of martial law," Robertson said.
Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director Nicholas Bequelin said the law is a "new weapon to brand and hound any perceived enemies of the state."
"In the prevailing climate of impunity, a law so vague on the definition of ‘terrorism’ can only worsen attacks against human rights defenders. The approval of this law grants the government excessive and unchecked powers," he said.
The new law was signed just days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released the world body's latest report on the human rights situation in the country.
In the report, she cited "serious" findings, including "killings, arbitrary detentions and vilification of those who challenge severe human rights violations" in the Philippines' drug war."
At the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, Bachelet urged Duterte to "refrain" from signing the new anti-terror law.
Meanwhile, the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) said it would exhaust efforts to challenge this "draconian law" before the high court.
"This without doubt is the most unpopular and perilous piece of legislation that could ever be pushed by a government that is fixated with the potion of power," the group said.
Human rights group Karapatan said it would "exhaust all means and platforms to challenge" the law as it condemned Duterte's signing of the counterterrorism bill as an "all-out crackdown on dissent."
"This monstrous piece of legislation is, without any doubt, the final puzzle piece in Duterte's Marcosian delusions and its enactment into law has serious and far-reaching implications not only on our work as human rights defenders, but also on the public who stands to be terrorised by this law," the group said.
Critics have been opposing the new law, citing provisions that may be prone to abuse, including allowing detention of suspects without charges for up to 24 days and a vague definition of acts that qualify as terrorism.
Its authors have, meanwhile, said the law has enough safeguards to protect against possible abuse.