“It is necessary that the relevant provisions of the international declaration are translated into a binding commitment not only to protect human rights but also those that work for the protection of these rights so that they may be able to fulfill their important role in the promotion, protection and defense of human rights and fundamental freedom.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – The House Committee on Human Rights has started deliberations on the proposed measure that aims to protect human rights defenders in the Philippines.
On Nov. 8, Monday, House Bill (HB) No. 15, “An Act Defining the Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Human Rights Defenders, Declaring State Responsibilities, and Instituting Effective Mechanisms for the Protection and Promotion of these Rights and Freedoms,” was approved on third reading in the 17th Congress, according to Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate.
HB 15 is a consolidated version of House Bills filed by Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman, Quezon City 6th District Rep. Jose Christopher Belmonte, and Makabayan bloc legislators. The bills were pending in the committee since July 2019.
Zarate stressed that the Philippine government is one of the 48 countries that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It also signed and ratified the multilateral treaties on human rights namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“These official acts of the Republic of the Philippines is a commitment that the government shall not only respect human rights, but must also protect and promote these rights,” Zarate said during the deliberations, adding that despite these commitments, gross rights violations in the country are still being perpetrated by state security forces.
It is in this context, he said, that the need for the human rights defenders bill came into being.
“Considering the importance of the role of human rights defenders in the protection of human rights in the country and the government’s international commitment to promote, protect and defend human rights and the continuing attacks on the people and human rights defenders, it is thus imperative that the Congress should put into law that commitment as enshrined in the United Nations General Assembly resolution on the rights of the human rights defenders,” Zarate added.
“It is necessary that the relevant provisions of the international declaration are translated into a binding commitment not only to protect human rights but also those that work for the protection of these rights so that they may be able to fulfill their important role in the promotion, protection and defense of human rights and fundamental freedom,” Zarate said.
For Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, the proposed measure is long overdue as human rights defenders as well as activists have suffered from various attacks especially under the administration of President Duterte.
Under Duterte, the group has documented 215 killings from July 2016 until August 2021.
This brings a total of 828 extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders since 2001. This number includes 70 Karapatan human rights workers who had been monitoring human rights violations committed by State forces in the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns and were assisting the victims, Palabay said.
“Many more experience judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, surveillance, threats, intimidation, and harassment online and offline, and other violations,” Palabay added.
What’s in the bill?
Sections 5 to 22 of the bill specify the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders such as:
– Right to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms
– Right to form groups, associations and organizations
– Right to solicit, receive and utilize resources
– Right to seek, receive and disseminate information
– Right to develop and advocate for human rights ideas
– Right to communicate with non-governmental, governmental and intergovernmental organizations
– Rights against vilification
– Right to access, communicate and cooperate with international and regional human rights bodies and mechanisms
– Right to participate in public affairs
– Right to peaceful assembly
– Right to represent and advocate
– Right to freedom of movement
– Right to privacy
– Freedom from intimidation or reprisal
– Right to establish a sanctuary for human rights victims and or their families
– Freedom from defamation and stigmatization
– Right to exercise cultural rights and the development of personality
– Right to effective remedy and full reparation
The proposed law also stated the obligations of state and public authorities.
Section 24 states that public authorities have an obligation to respect, promote, protect and fulfill the rights of human rights defenders. They are mandated to take all necessary measures to ensure:
1) that human rights and fundamental freedoms stated in the bill are effectively guaranteed and protected;
2) that all laws, policies and programs of government are consistent with the rights stated in the bill;
3) that human rights defenders are able to undertake their activities and work in a safe and enabling environment free from restriction.
Section 28, on the other hand, obliges authorities to prevent and to ensure protection from intimidation or reprisal by any other public or private actor while Section 30 states that “Under no circumstances shall public authorities engage in false, unfounded and derogatory labeling of human rights defenders including identifying them as ‘red,’ ‘communist,’ ‘terrorist,’ or ‘enemies of the State.’”
Under Duterte, human rights workers who were killed or arrested due to trumped-up charges were tagged as such.
The proposed measure also mandates all public authorities not to participate in any acts that will violate human rights and fundamental freedoms. The law also mandates that if a public authority or private actor ever commits rights violations, the “State must ensure that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation is conducted with extraordinary diligence and is prosecuted under existing applicable laws.”
Meanwhile, violators of the provision of the proposed measure shall be penalized.
Section 46 states that “The penalty of prision mayor (six to 12 years imprisonment) in its maximum period to reclusion temporal (12 to 20 years of imprisonment) in its medium period without privilege of parole shall be imposed upon any government personnel or the whole complement of a government unit, the paramilitary unit, the government asset (and/or the military affiliate) who violates any of the rights of a human rights defender” defined in the bill.
The law also proposed the creation of a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee, an independent collegial body whose chairperson will be selected from the Commissioners of the Commission on Human Rights while the members are from human rights organizations who have proven track records or probity and independence.
For Palabay, these proposed measures are “urgent responses to a situation that has long been on emergency mode, and we shall continue to monitor and keep vigil on the bill’s passage, as we continue with our work in defense of people’s rights and of our own ranks by urgently calling on Congress for the enactment of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act.”
“Let this also be a warning to those who continue to use red-tagging to vilify and justify attacks against rights defenders: we shall not cower,” Palabay added. (RTS, RVO)