Rodrigo Duterte Rappler
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (Image: King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo)

Philippine security forces are going on a killing spree after President Rodrigo Duterte gave the order to “finish off” communist rebels.

But this latest wave of violence is one with links to the Morrison government — and the work of Australia’s security services.

Last month the Nine newspapers reported Australian security agencies had provided “technical assistance” over the past three years as the Philippines’ government drafted a controversial anti-terrorism act, which is being challenged in its Supreme Court. Human rights and civil society groups warn the legislation could give authorities extraordinary power to arrest and detain without charge.

On Sunday nine left-wing activists were killed, a sign of escalating bloodshed in Duterte’s campaign to eliminate communists at all costs.

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The bill was passed into law at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and was always controversial. It defines terrorism very broadly, making no distinction between legitimate dissent.

It gives Duterte and his cabinet secretaries power to determine who is a terrorist, and creates offences for incitement which could criminalise free speech. Those deemed terrorists can be detained indefinitely without trial or charge.

The law was always targeted at destroying the Philippines’ 50-year-old communist insurgency.

Defending it, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade, said: “We don’t over-generalise but we will call spade a spade. If you don’t aid terrorists, then you are safe.”

Parlade has been embroiled in incidents of “red-tagging” — an infamous practice used by Philippine authorities in which journalists and activists (and critics of the new law) are labelled communists, justifying arrests and extra-judicial killings.

“The new law has been criticised by a number of UN experts because of its broad and vague definition of terrorism,” said Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson.

“This is a country where we’ve seen repeatedly over the years the blurring of the lines between leftist activists and terrorists by the government.”

Australia’s involvement

We don’t know how much Australia helped writing Duterte’s bill, other than that security agencies provided “technical assistance”, including aligning it with United Nations recommendations.

That isn’t inherently problematic. Pearson says it’s quite normal for foreign governments to provide technical assistance when laws are being written.

And although the Philippines old anti-terrorism laws needed updating, she says the new law has been a “human rights disaster”, widely criticised for the incredible power it gives security services.

The law is being challenged in long-winded Supreme Court proceedings, which have been delayed because of a COVID outbreak, and because one of the petitioners was mysteriously attacked.

Pearson says Australia should use its leverage with the Philippines to push for the law to be overhauled.

“Australia should take a long hard look at the law, and be very clear with the Philippines government that it needs to revise it,” she said. “It should be speaking out with concern about the red-tagging of activists and the extra-judicial killings.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not able to comment by deadline.