Preventing Violence or Harming Peace and Rights? What the UN Can Learn from Counterterrorism in the Philippines

Soldiers walk down the decimated streets of Marawi city, October 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

In 2017, UN staff met with representatives of Rodrigo Duterte’s government to discuss the development of a Philippines National Action Plan on the prevention and countering of violent extremism (P/CVE). Around the same time, President Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to begin a militarized counterterrorism operation to respond to violent groups in Marawi, a Muslim majority city on the southern Island of Mindanao. This extensive, five-month-long bombing of militant-held areas wiped out entire neighborhoods, displaced 98 percent of the city’s residents, and was responsible for the deaths of multiple civilians.

While Marawi remained in rubble, consultations on the Philippines National Action Plan on P/CVE (NAP P/CVE) continued until its adoption in 2019. Following the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action recommendations, many countries have developed NAPs on P/CVE to provide the basis for interagency UN and government counterterrorism cooperation. In the Philippines, the UN had hoped that the NAP process could help to influence authorities away from the militarized, overly securitized version of counterterrorism that the increasingly authoritarian government had been pursuing. UN agencies involved attempted to introduce a developmental, preventative approach that focused on addressing the conditions conducive to the existence of violent groups.

However, new research from Saferworld and the Initiatives for International Dialogue highlights how the roll-out of counterterrorism and P/CVE policies, plans, and projects in the Philippines is having a significant negative impact on peace, security, and the fulfillment of human rights in the country. Specifically, it is:

1) Enabling a crackdown on opposition and dissent. The inclusion within the NAP of an overbroad definition of what constitutes extremism and radicalization is leading to significant harm in the Philippines. The criteria used for assessing radicalization include an individual’s political persuasion, religious belief, or the educational institutions where they study. The growing use of the terms “extremist” and “radical” endangers people who are at risk of unjustly being labeled as “terrorists”—anyone the government considers “enemies of the state,” including activists who are easily branded as members of the communist armed movement with little, if any, evidence. Increasing numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, labor group members, indigenous people, environmental rights activists, lawyers, doctors, and priests have received death threats, been executed, or died in police operations after being “red-tagged” by the government for their alleged political sympathies.

2) Securitizing communities and civil society. Moves to broaden the focus of P/CVE to cover new areas of intervention are limiting the space for civil society to implement prevention, mediation, peacebuilding, and development programming that is not connected to a wider counterterrorism goal. External funding is increasingly tied to P/CVE. This has led to the instrumentalization of women’s rights organizations and youth groups, which are often the targets of such funding. Funding given through this securitized lens moves these organizations and groups away from their vital role in championing community priorities in the context of an increasingly authoritarian governance approach, weakening core partners for UN in-country prevention efforts.

3) Dividing society and discriminating against minorities. The NAP includes a list of demographic groups labeled “vulnerable sectors.” This list includes educational institutions, religious leaders, and social media platforms. Engagement with these communities and spaces risks becoming security-focused, with the individuals involved potentially treated as a threat. Members of minority communities in the Philippines, such as Moros or Muslims, are among the worst affected and find themselves in the crosshairs of counterterrorism and P/CVE. Security forces are targeting individuals—specifically young people—from these groups under the state’s counterterrorism strategy, as well as subjecting them to surveillance and policing programs packaged as P/CVE. Young people we spoke with for our research told us that they were treated as potential ‘terrorists’ by authorities if they spoke up about human rights. The tendency of P/CVE to view and portray aggrieved communities as “vulnerable” and therefore a source of threats is further ostracizing already marginalized sectors and breeding mistrust.

These developments all carry significant risk for increased conflict in the country and have already led to observable deteriorations in the human rights situation. Unfortunately, this seems set to worsen given recent legal moves by the Duterte government to strengthen counterterrorism powers.

In June 2020, the Philippine government pushed through the highly contested Anti-Terrorism Act. This legislation led to widespread criticism for its alleged unconstitutionality. UN Special Procedures raised “serious concerns regarding the designation of individuals and civil society and humanitarian organizations as ‘terrorists’ in the context of ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders and political opponents.” Authorities have used the legislation to target political opponents and representatives of the negotiation team for the communist insurgency in the south.

A common response to criticism of the P/CVE agenda among some of those we interviewed is the assertion that the framing helps to influence a shift away from hard security toward a preventative, human rights-based approach. Yet, we see scant evidence that this is happening. Instead, the P/CVE discourse has played a role in inflating the threat of terrorism and in ensuring military-first counterterrorism remains the primary lens through which to view violence and conflict in the country. The boundaries between the counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and P/CVE agendas are now blurred. Notably, the specific body of the Philippine government tasked to coordinate the NAP on P/CVE is called “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Insurgency—Project Management Office.”

Those consulted during our research understood the limitations of the current political climate in the Philippines, but noted that they often rely on external entities like the UN to offer a principled yet pragmatic push back on contested issues with the government and the military. The UN can often use its good offices to influence authorities away from harmful approaches, but there are times when this does not work, and continued cooperation becomes too great a risk. What is clear is that the approach of the Philippine government is rooted neither in a human rights-based approach nor in conflict sensitivity principles, putting it at odds with the UN prevention agenda. This is not something the UN should support, or be seen to support, and should, in the short term, elicit a pause in cooperation.

In the long term, the UN should engage in a wider reflection on counterterrorism cooperation and the negative impact it is having on peace and prevention efforts, mediation space, and the fulfillment of human rights. The case of the Philippines offers the UN three important lessons for this reflection:

1) P/CVE cooperation cannot be assumed to be neutral. In the Philippines, it is clear that the P/CVE agenda is part of a wider approach that is exacerbating conflict and infringing upon human rights. In such cases, the UN needs to be honest about the incompatibility of P/CVE with the UN prevention agenda.

To ensure coherence and conflict sensitivity in its approach, the UN should invest in an oversight mechanism for all counterterrorism-related programming. This would require a central oversight function that could examine and review the actions and activities of all UN entities related to counterterrorism, in an independent and impartial manner. Central to this will be ensuring UN resident coordinators have the mandate to oversee any UN counterterrorism or P/CVE cooperation at both the design and implementation stages. Such a mechanism could act as an internal firewall that flags conflict, human rights, and security risks. Ensuring that programming went through more thorough oversight would protect the UN system from engagements that potentially do harm and undermine UN values.

2) Peace and rights cannot be treated as acceptable collateral damage from counterterrorism action. The neglect and erosion of human rights; the instrumentalization of gender equality movements; and the adoption of belligerent approaches that undermine processes for building, keeping, and making peace should not be viewed as the acceptable cost of rolling out counterterrorism and P/CVE interventions. The example of the Philippines should lead to reflection within the UN about where the line is, and what happens when it is crossed.

To mitigate these harms, UN agencies should ensure all P/CVE and counterterrorism programming and policies include a conflict sensitivity assessment and a gender analysis in the design, implementation, and evaluation phases. The UN already has some of these tools in place (UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, the UNDP Risk Management for PVE Programmes, Gender mainstreaming principles, dimensions, and priorities for PVE). Operationalizing these prior to programming is crucial.

3) Impartiality is not neutrality. Impartiality is a requirement for the UN. But impartiality is not the same as neutrality. The UN system cannot be neutral in relation to an agenda that is causing significant human rights harms, exacerbating conflict, and derailing peace processes. If programming is contributing, directly or indirectly, to the shrinking of civic space, to criminalizing opposition, or to spying on minorities, then UN agencies should withdraw their involvement.

Beyond programming, this must also extend to terminology and language. The use of language like “communist terrorist groups” and “violent extremist” is not without prejudice in the Philippines and has been liberally used to justify harmful security responses. To mitigate this, the wider UN system should follow the lead of some UN entities and avoid replicating blanket, divisive, and value-laden terms.

Counterterrorism in the Philippines is clearly running contrary to the UN Secretary-General’s vision on prevention. The UN cannot be blamed for the militarized, repressive approach of the Duterte administration, however the in-country presence must weigh the potential impact of withdrawing all support versus continuing to try to shift the government’s approach. Whatever the UN decides, the case of the Philippines should be used to inform a better understanding of the conceptual and practical drawbacks of UN support for P/CVE approaches in similar contexts.

This article is part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism (PVE/CT), done in collaboration with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations.

Aries Arugay is Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Marc Batac is Programmes Manager at the Initiatives for International Dialogue, and Jordan Street is Policy Advocacy Adviser at Saferworld.