Legislating National Security in the Philippines

House of Representatives in Quezon City
Credit: VALERIE ESCALERA/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Philippines faces numerous security problems. The pandemic response continues to be a priority as the country faces new COVID-19 variants and struggles to improve its vaccination rate. While the adverse effects of climate change and its geographical location highlights its vulnerabilities and risks. This dire situation is further aggravated by existing internal conflicts and its ongoing maritime dispute in the West Philippines Sea. 

These persistent challenges often lead policymakers and security advocates to ask, “Can a new national security act enable the country to adequately respond to current and emerging security challenges?” My answer to this question is in the affirmative and my reasons are as follows.

From a policy perspective, the current national security agenda and strategy provides the overall framework for the strategic interest of the country. These plans reflect the priorities of a current political administration. However, its short-term nature reveals the lack of strategic depth and often requires security planners to prioritize political considerations rather than having a long-term holistic vision. Its limited time frame of 6 years discourages private sector investments and fails to foster meaningful engagement with civil society.       In addition, existing laws on disaster management and public health emergencies are usually reactive and have fostered institutional silos rather than encouraging collaboration. Consequently, these laws do not adequately define the mechanisms for a holistic societal approach. Meanwhile, the current Armed Forces Modernization Act was created to restore its traditional defense capabilities. This legislation has failed to link its goals to the country’s local defense industries and responds vaguely to non-traditional security concerns.

These inconsistencies are reflected in the government’s response to security challenges. Widely viewed as a top-down approach focused on government, this strategy relies heavily on its security, law enforcement and public safety agencies (SLEPS). Moreover, this strategy has overburdened these organizations, negatively impacting their mission readiness. For instance, police and coast guard units were tasked to augment the COVID-19 response by conducting contact tracing and testing. While the use of Air Force planes for COVID duties revealed serious limitations in its airlift capability.

At this point, I believe that the current policy environment needs to be reexamined. Its “one-size-fits-all” approach ignores the complexity of both traditional and non-traditional threats. For instance, the government’s highly securitized pandemic response revealed doctrinal gaps and logistical challenges in SLEPS agencies. As an example, the current doctrines and plans of the Philippine National Police do not include pandemic response as part of its mission. This resulted in the creation of ad hoc units to support the disease mitigation effort. These units are often confronted with inadequate equipment and logistics difficulties as well as problems in its capacity.

Therefore, these experiences and policy gaps are clear evidence of the need for a new national security legislation. This new law can provide the overall legal/policy framework that can serve as a guide for the various stakeholders. Below are some ideas that can stimulate discussion on this issue.

a) Define traditional and non-traditional threats in the context of the Philippines

I argue that the new law should provide a clear definition of traditional and non-traditional threats. This should enable institutions to understand the nexus between the two concepts and design appropriate programs to respond to these dangers. Providing a clear conceptual definition should also encourage stakeholders to frame a suitable and realistic “whole of society” approach. It must also provide a crisis management framework and allow SLEPS agencies to rapidly expand its capabilities given the exigencies of an emergency.

b) Reexamine and synergize existing laws and policies

Existing laws often consider security threats based on their effects and origins. Thus, emphasis is placed on response through the mobilization of resources and sanctions. These statutes rarely underscore the importance of readiness and interoperability as well as the need to build resilient institutions. These laws also ignored the fact that security threats could occur simultaneously. This is evident in the case of COVID-19, where, in addition to its impact on public health, an increase in cybercrime and misinformation has also been reported. The pandemic has also resulted in a prolonged economic recession that has exacerbated hunger and poverty. In addition, existing legislation often placed local governments in charge of crisis management. However, many local leaders found themselves ill prepared for its impact and were forced to rely on the national government for assistance. Also, policy inconsistencies have fragmented authority and resources, thus making it difficult to address multiple security threats.

This condition demonstrates that ad hoc and short-sighted strategies are often inadequate to deal with situations of high volatility, uncertainty, and complexity.

c) Expand the concept of national security and define the roles of stakeholders

Clearly, these oversights reflect the need to expand the concept of national security beyond government. I believe that a new law should redefine its referent objects by highlighting the role of the private sector, civil society, and communities. There is also a need to emphasize the role of the community as front-line responders. In addition, the formation of communities of practice responsible for building capacity and knowledge must be pursued.  

Finally, the new act should develop a strategic culture and foster futures thinking. It should also encourage stakeholders to contribute to the country’s security agenda.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.