MANILA - While governments have the inherent right to pass laws to strengthen national security and protect its states against terrorism, the same laws are also being used against people speaking against the government, a United Nations officer said.
Speaking in a virtual forum, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Voule said some governments have abused these laws to silent the opposition, civic groups, lawyers, and journalists.
"We have seen governments persecute protesters...for merely displaying flag of certain parties, or independence movements. We have seen protesters been persecuted for taking part in rally that have political message that government claim is against national security. We have seen civil society member and the representative of indigenous community charged under these laws for campaigning against development project which destroy environment and community livelihood," Voule said.
Moreover, the broad, vague wording of these laws have made it easy for governments to label individuals as "enemy of the state", or as "foreign agents", giving them the "legitimacy" to close down organizations, freeze their assets and persecute them.
"We understand the legitimate concern of any government to fight against terrorists or to protect their national security.. the broad legal provision allows the abuse interpretation of limitation on the right of peaceful assembly and association," he added.
One of the examples Voule cited is the Philippines' "war on drugs".
"We raised this concern on the vague definition on the contact terrorism that allow government to arrest human right defenders in the process of this war against drugs," Voule said.
Prior to the pandemic, the human rights "crisis" of the Duterte administration has already surfaced, with President Duterte labelling dissenters "enemies of the state", demonizing journalists and those voicing the opposition, according to Cristina Palabay, the Secretary General of human rights group Karapatan, who spoke in the forum.
She believes the anti-terror law was meant "not to crackdown on terrorism but to crackdown on dissent", affecting many of her group's members.
"In July 2020 amidst the pandemic, the measure in Congress, amendments to the human security act or the 'all new all improved terror law' was railroaded in Congress and it was put in place despite opposition. Since then we have documented 91 activists, farmers, indigenous peoples, workers, human rights workers of Karapatan who have been killed. More than 100 thousand have been arrested due to quarantine restrictions of government and trumped-up charges against dissenting voices," Palabay revealed.
Red-tagging has now become a "phenomenon", "meant to disrupt" and "silence" the opposition.
"We think the use of counter-terror policies have long term impacts on the exercise of rights and fundamental freedoms, it can lead to further weaponization of laws against activists and dissenters, infringement on freedom of thought and expression, it can lead to a Martial law regime," she added.
OTHER ASIAN COUNTRIES
Like the Philippines, West Papua and India have similar challenges.
Gustav Kawer, a human rights lawyer and defender, recounts "human rights violations, extra judicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention" of Papua people since the "sham" referendum in 1969 where West Papua was "forced" to integrate with Indonesia.
He said, activists in West Papua are often seen as a "terrorist supporter".
"What we need in West Papua from the international community.. to urge Indonesia to open access to international journalists, to end internet and mobile disruption having to monopolize information about armed conflict, and urge Indonesia to fulfill its promise to allow UN visit to West Papua," said Kawer, speaking thru an interpreter.
Meanwhile, Indian lawyer Dushyant Dave pushes their judicial system to "rise to the occasion and protect the civil rights" of its people, since he said their counter terrorism laws are not only used to fight terrorism but to "suppress dissent, suppress opposition, stop assembly and associations."
"There are many laws that are invoked, for example recently... They (government) want all social media platforms and intermediaries to be governed, and.. to go to the originator of the message, so that the originator of the message can be threatened by the government," he said.
"If anybody criticizes the government, it will be used.. against all kinds of activists, protesters, critics. Journalists, lawyers are attacked. Getting a bail is extremely difficult," Dave added.
With these threats to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, Voule calls on governments to uphold its obligation to protect their people's rights.
"What the international community can do is to continue to remind the states, to take all necessary measures to ensure it is fulfilling its obligations," he said.
"It is not enough to express sadness..it is important that each case is viewed constantly," Dave added.