December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

How useful is the Human Security Act?

In February 2007, the Senate passed the Human Security Act (HSA) otherwise known as RA No. 9372: “An Act to Secure the State and Protect our People From Terrorism.” It aimed to provide law enforcement and judicial authorities with the legal tools needed to confront the threats posed by international terrorism, while ensuring protection and civil liberties and human rights.

RA 9372 brought the Philippines in line with its ASEAN neighbors battling Islamist militants. Observers note, however, that revisions watered down its effectiveness rendering it practically toothless. That’s a point President Rodrigo Roa Duterte -- who recently placed Mindanao under martial law to contain the spread of lawlessness caused by rebellion, terrorism, insurgency and organized crime -- must take into serious account. He should mobilize the National Security Council (NSC), the National Peace and Order Council (NPOC), and the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) to review and amend RA 9372 to restore its bite if he wants to decisively defeat this threat to human security.

The HSA revolves around these three points:

• The State recognizes that the fight against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach -- political, economic, diplomatic, military and legal -- taking into account its root causes without acknowledging these as justification for terrorist and/or criminal activities. Such measures shall include conflict management, post-conflict peacemaking, building state capacity and promoting sustainable development.

This statement underscores the realization that a military solution will not resolve terrorism. Instead, it requires a comprehensive approach.

• Terrorism is the premeditated or threatened use of violence or force or any other means that deliberately cause harm to persons, or of force and other destructive means against property or the environment, with the intention of creating or sowing a state of danger, panic, fear, or chaos to the general public or segment thereof, or of coercing or intimidating the government to do or refrain from acting on it.

The law provides a clearer definition of terrorism allowing police and security services a better understanding of the crimes at stake.

• Arrest and Detention. Any peace officer or a private person may, without warrant, arrest a person: (a) when, in his presence, the person to be arrested has committed, is actually committing, or attempting to commit any of the offense under this Act; or (b) when any of said offense has in fact been committed and he has reasonable ground to believe that the person to be arrested has committed the same. Any person arrested under this Section may be detained for a period of not more than three (3) days following his arrest for custodial investigation.

Previous laws related to anti-terrorism had many loopholes that prevented the detention of terror suspects. The HSA enables our law enforcers to arrest suspected terrorists without warrant and bestows the authority to detain suspects for 3 days.

The HSA points to 12 violent crimes including arson, piracy, rebellion, murder, kidnapping as acts of terror. It prohibits extraordinary rendition, i.e., the practice of apprehending foreign terror suspects and extraditing them for interrogation, to enhance Philippine criminal justice. It also aims to curb terrorism financing and cross-group fertilization of terror activities. Ten years down the road is enough time to assess whether RA 9372 has met those objectives or not. I’ll bet it hasn’t. Apart from its perceived weaknesses, it’s also because the criminal justice system is in disrepair and awaiting crucial reforms.

Human rights groups have questioned HSA provisions such as the detention of suspects without charges and jailing terrorists for up to 40 years. The act also empowers our authorities to peer into the bank accounts of suspected terrorists and terrorist organizations, as well as electronic surveillance, with prior court approval. Critics also point out that there are a few safeguards against human rights violations, which are of a monetary nature. The act states that any person wrongfully detained would merit a stiff fine for each day of detention.

Mindanao and its island provinces -- Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi -- harbor a variety of pan-Islamic terror groups principally for training, rest, and recreation. Covert camps train Southeast Asians in battlefield skills and explosives handling including bomb-making. Mobile training programs continue to produce ruthless terrorists. Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyya have been replaced by the Daesh or ISIL/IS/ISIS, a more virulent and intolerant group of jihadists that are quick to kill perceived “kafirs” who reject their twisted interpretation of Islam.

The Battle for Marawi is now into its third week where we’ve seen the integration of local extremist groups with foreign jihadists from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Chechnya. Our intelligence community estimates up to 400 foreign jihadists in-country (Indonesia has a much higher estimate) who slip in undetected through our porous borders and main gateways. They’ve chosen Marawi to be the seat of their “wilayat” or local caliphate, and have demonstrated the mindless savagery and destruction that ISIS has displayed in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Malacañang, the DND and the DILG should thoroughly probe where the blame for the failure of governance, intelligence and security ought to fall on, and take corrective action. It took time for the plotters and attackers to prepare for Marawi. The search must go back in time as far as possible.

As for the failure of citizenship, professional sociologists, psychologists and political scientists should be harnessed to assess the depth and breadth of maleducation at home, in school and in places of worship that has led to extremism for some, and to negligence, resentment and apathy for many.

Martial law has a limited shelf life. Even if it was extended, it won’t be indefinite.

What will effectively curb terror, rebellion and organized crime is a reformed criminal justice system backed by a Human Security Act that has enough teeth to give our authorities a fighting chance to defeat those threats. Marawi is another wake-up call that gives us an opportunity to make things right. Leadership at all levels remains the call of the hour.

Rafael M. Alunan served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.