The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday called on President Rodrigo Duterte to refrain from signing the anti-terror bill, citing what she called its potential "chilling effect" on humanitarian and human rights work.
Reporting on the Philippines' human rights situation at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bachelet cautioned that the measure "heightens our concerns on the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism.”
"I would urge the President to refrain from signing the (Anti-Terrorism) law and to initiate a broad-based consultation process to craft legislation that would effectively prevent and counter violent extremism but which contains some safeguards to prevent its misuse against people engaged in peaceful criticism and advocacy," she said.
"The law could have a chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities," she said.
But the Duterte administration's Secretary of Justice, Menardo Guevarra, in the same session in Geneva, said in a video message human rights “is a fundamental national interest, rooted in our recent history as the first country to use People Power successfully to restore democracy by toppling a dictatorship notorious for human rights violations.”
Guevarra added: “Human rights anchor the agenda of the administration which seeks to promote and uplift the dignity of all 110 million Filipinos.
“First and foremost of these rights is the safety, security and wellbeing of the general public. This commitment has been firm and unwavering; more so now as the nation faces the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“An assessment of the human rights situation in the Philippines can only be credible when it is properly informed by context on the ground.”
Guevarra said like many other governments, the Philippines “face problems that heavily bear upon efforts to improve the lives of our people and secure their future.
“These include drugs, corruption, criminality and terrorism. We cherish our newly won, hard fought democracy, so we are deeply concerned about the inroads made by the drug trade in the subversion of democracies.
“Our democracy and legal institutions ensure that the national response to these problems, even the gravest of them aimed at democracy, are always within the law and in full respect of human rights.”
Congress earlier this month transmitted the criticized bill for President Duterte's signature. Malacañang promised a thorough review, and the President's spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte was "inclined" to sign it into law.
The measure, crafted to supplant the 2007 Human Security Act, has stoked fears it might be used to suppress legitimate dissent, with critics and legal experts wary of its broad definition of terrorism.
It also allows detention via warrantless arrest for up to 24 days.
But authors of the bill have said concerns are unfounded, as the measure comes with enough safeguards.
In the report, Bachelet cited "serious" findings, including "killings, arbitrary detentions and vilification of those who challenge severe human rights violations" in the Philippines' drug war.
According to Guevarra, the government had set up a monitoring mechanism to ensure “public transparency and full accountability in this campaign (which) accounts for, and publishes evidence-based outcomes of the campaign across 42,046 villages across the country, as well as figures on law enforcement actions and drug-related cases in the courts.”
Guevarra added: “Claims that there is impunity or near-impunity in the country find no anchor in a system that provides every avenue to examine, establish and pursue a claim of wrongdoing by a State actor, if such claim is substantiated with facts.
“We take each case brought before our authorities with the diligence it deserves. In the same manner we ask that the human rights mechanisms exercise due diligence in validating allegations brought before them by parties.
“The independence of our courts is affirmed by convictions of an Army General in 2018 and of members of a high profile political family and police officials in 2019, and the indictment of a former Police Chief in January this year.”
At the same time, Guevarra said: “As with all human rights-related mechanisms in the country, the Commission on Human Rights will be involved in its capacity as an independent monitoring body.
“The continued, unhampered functioning of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights underpins our strong position against calls for an independent investigative mechanism, including the one made before the International Criminal Court from which we have withdrawn.”