While You Weren't Looking

If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner. A weekly update on emerging global stories, written by Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon. Delivered Monday.

New Anti-Terrorism Law Would Enhance Duterte’s Power

In the Philippines, the House of Representatives just passed legislation that will enable a crackdown on government critics.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Filipino protesters in protective masks march in protest over the government's new anti-terror law on June 4 in Quezon City, Philippines.
Filipino protesters in protective masks march in protest over the government's new anti-terror law on June 4 in Quezon City, Philippines. Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: New counterterrorism laws in the Philippines could fuel an already brutal crackdown on dissent, a renegade Libyan general ends his bid to capture Tripoli, and India turns its back on Chinese apps as border tensions simmer.

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: New counterterrorism laws in the Philippines could fuel an already brutal crackdown on dissent, a renegade Libyan general ends his bid to capture Tripoli, and India turns its back on Chinese apps as border tensions simmer.

If you would like to receive While You Weren’t Looking in your inbox on Fridays, please sign up here.

The Philippines Passes Strict Anti-Terrorism Law

On Wednesday, the Philippines’ House of Representatives passed antiterrorism legislation that would endow the authorities with a dizzying degree of power to arrest and detain government critics—under the guise of fighting terrorism. The new legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte shortly, creates a new counterterrorism council appointed by the president with the authority to designate individuals and organizations as terrorists, absent any legal or independent oversight.

Critics fear that the vaguely worded law will enable the government to detain its opponents for up to 24 days without charge. Since he came to power in 2016, Duterte has waged a war on independent media and freedom of speech, arresting journalists and social media users for criticizing the government. Despite a ban on mass gatherings due to the coronavirus, hundreds of Filipinos took to the streets to protest the bill on Thursday. The authorities have exploited the pandemic to crack down further, arresting several social media users for allegedly spreading fake news and ordering the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, off the air.

Duterte’s war. Underscoring concerns about the amount of unchecked power the bill could give Duterte, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights released a damning report on Thursday that found that tens of thousands of Filipinos may have been killed by the police in the president’s drug war since he was elected in 2016. Government figures state that 8,663 have been killed, but the U.N. report states that other estimates believe the death toll could be three times higher.

The report cautions that the human rights situation in the Philippines had been marked by an “overarching focus on public order and national security.” Duterte vowed to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office, promising that “fish will grow fat” on the bodies dumped in Manila Bay.

What We’re Following

Police brutality undermines U.S. standing. The world looked on in shock this week as police across the United States violently cracked down on the protests against police brutality that began after George Floyd, a black man, died after being violently pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis last Monday. EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell said that Europe was “shocked and appalled,” urging U.S. President Donald Trump to refrain from “excessive force.” Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said that black people around the world are “shocked and distraught” by the killing, and the Australian Embassy in Washington has opened an investigation after Australian journalists were attacked by U.S. Park Police live on air.

The crackdown has undermined long-standing efforts to position the United States as a global defender of democracy and human rights, as Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report. “The erosion of U.S. global leadership has been faster than expected,” a senior European diplomat told FP.

A general’s retreat in Libya. Renegade Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar has withdrawn his troops from the outskirts of Tripoli—15 months after he launched a brutal campaign to capture the capital. The conflict between Haftar and the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) quickly became a proxy war as a number of international players have waded into the conflict. Haftar received weapons and support from Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. When Turkey sent troops in January to bolster the GNA, it tipped the balance of power in favor of the Tripoli government.

Libya has been plagued by conflict since longtime ruler Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled in 2011. While Haftar’s forces are in retreat, there is little optimism that peace will follow. Some experts caution that Libya risks becoming an intractable quagmire as foreign powers vie for influence in the oi- rich country.

Erdogan’s crackdown continues. Three Turkish opposition politicians were expelled from office on Thursday, stripping them of their parliamentary immunity as authorities detained them on terrorism and espionage charges. The detentions of Leyla Guven and Musa Farisogullari, members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, and Enis Berberoglu—of the main opposition Republican People’s Party—is the latest in a crackdown on dissent that began after the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in 2016.

As the pandemic batters the Turkish economy and support for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party slides, snap elections could be called in an attempt to shore up the party’s grip on power.

Keep an Eye On 

Putin’s efforts to stay in power. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a referendum on proposed changes to the Russian constitution that would keep him in power until 2036 will be held on July 1. Putin’s four-term limit runs out in 2024, and speculation about what might happen next has gripped the country’s chattering classes since his reelection in 2018. The proposed constitutional amendments, unveiled in January, would extend the limit by two terms.

Other proposed changes would give Russian law primacy over international law—a shot across the bow at bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights—and would codify marriage as between a man and woman in a bid to curry favor with Russia’s conservative voters. The referendum, previously scheduled for April, was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

More from Russia this week. The Russian government declared a state of emergency in northern Siberia after 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked from a power plant fuel tanker into a river near the city of Norilsk on May 29. It is believed to be the second-largest such accident in modern Russian history, posing a significant threat to the local environment. Greenpeace Russia compared it to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska in 1989.

Workers on the tanker, owned by a subsidiary of the world’s largest nickel producer, spent two days trying to clean up the spill themselves before alerting authorities. “So what, we are going to learn about emergencies from social media now?” Putin said on Wednesday, chiding the regional governor and plant managers.

India and China’s digital dispute. As tensions simmer between India and China over their undemarcated border in the Himalayas, Indians have found a novel way to hit back at Beijing: boycotting Chinese-made apps. Since it launched last month, an app called Remove Chinese Apps was downloaded 4 million times from the Google Play Store before the U.S. tech giant had it removed for violating the company’s rules on targeting third-party apps. Jaipur-based One Touch Labs, which developed the app, said that it was a step toward a “self-reliant India,” echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calls for the country to become less reliant on the world economy post-pandemic.

“We ought to hit them where it hurts most,” a spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said on Twitter, using the hashtag #BoycottChineseProducts. A boycott of Chinese apps in India would be consequential for the economies of both countries. ByteDance, the Chinese developer behind the wildly popular TikTok app, announced last year that it hoped to invest $1 billion in India.

Well, that settles it. The former prosecutor general of Ukraine, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, told Reuters this week that while he was in office, an audit of old case files relating to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the former U.S. vice president’s son. As the impeachment investigation of Trump ramped up in October 2019, Ryaboshapka ordered prosecutors to audit old cases as part of a wider review. Among them were case files on the gas company Burisma, where Hunter Biden was a member of the board until April 2019.

Allegations that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had sought to shield his son’s work from scrutiny were at the heart of a scheme by Trump’s allies to pressure Ukrainian officials to open corruption investigations into the Bidens in a bid to uncover potentially damaging information. The claims have been debunked by former U.S. officials, Ukraine experts, and now the former prosecutor general. But there’s every chance they will resurface as the 2020 election campaign heats up.

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack