BEYOND THE BEND: Meeting terrorism head on

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 18 June) — It is not clear from the text of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Proclamation No. 216 if martial law was designed to be an anti-terrorism response by his administration. But according to his legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, martial law over the entire island of Mindanao will “strengthen the hand of government in dealing with terrorists”.

As expected, several petitions against martial law in Mindanao were filed with the Supreme Court (SC). Whilst debating on the constitutionality of martial law before the high court is good for lawyers, the rest of society remain burdened with the problem of terrorism.

Notably, in a recent security summit in Singapore the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, stated that the next big terrorist attack could be in Southeast Asia. This warning cannot be ignored given the intel on the presence of foreign jihadists in Mindanao. Furthermore, there are reports that children in Mindanao are being actively recruited to fight as soldiers. In fact, most of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters were found to be in their 20s.

So, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo is absolutely right. Terrorism must not be seen as simply a threat. It is a scourge that has long been brewing in our midst (i.e. Mindanao) primarily because central government leaders have not given this issue the urgency it warrants.

And worse, the ability of the Maute Group to effectively hold Marawi City hostage for this long shows that martial law may not be the appropriate state response to terrorism. For according to Solicitor General Jose Calida during oral arguments before the SC, martial law does not give new legal powers to the President. Indeed, at best it only has strong psychological effect against these enemies of the state.

As far as law enforcement goes, government has essentially the same power under martial law as it had prior to its declaration. Hence, it is quite hard to imagine what has changed for the government in their effort to destroy terrorists. Ironically, lost in the brouhaha over martial law is the fact that there is already an existing anti-terrorism framework.

The lead government agency tasked to address the problem of terrorism is the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), created pursuant to the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007. It is an “inter-agency body organized to implement the HSA and assumes the responsibility for the proper and effective implementation of the country’s anti-terrorism policy.” Its mandate “includes the formulation and adoptions of a comprehensive, adequate, efficient, and effective anti-terrorism plans, programs, and counter-measures to suppress and eradicate terrorism and to protect all people from act of terrorism.”

It is now common knowledge that terrorism is directly linked to the social, political and economic marginalization of particular members of society. Simply put, poverty and inequality fuel such a vicious level of anti-social behaviour. This is true for the Philippines as well.

Hence, on one hand, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo is absolutely right again in urging government to “address the economic and political roots of terrorism.” And by government, I daresay the good prelate here means both the legislature and the executive branches.

Correspondingly, public discourses on federalism, on the Bangsamoro Basic Bill, on tax reform, on climate change, on food security and so forth must also prominently involve reform measures such as institutionalizing open access to the political process for all citizens, strategies for inclusive economic prosperity and state mechanisms that ensure social harmony and cohesion amongst all Filipinos. These are all urgent national concerns that play a huge influence in dealing with terrorism in the country.

On the other hand, to meet the problem of terrorism head on, there should be an accounting of the wide gap between the creation of the ATC and the Marawi City siege by the Maute Group. There must be a thorough review of the anti-terrorism legal framework no matter how hard and acrimonious this process can be. The ultimate goal here is to identify what the ATC needs to properly address the scourge of terrorism.

Government leaders, civil society groups and other stakeholders must now get together and candidly assess the capability of law enforcement agencies to defeat terrorists. Formulating and implementing social interventions at the community level to prevent the radicalization of Filipino youths is utterly imperative. Indeed, mobilizing communities themselves to specifically combat terrorism is absolutely indispensable. As the spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, correctly points out, the fight against terrorism is our “shared responsibility”. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism)