Legal recognition and protection of human rights defenders in the Philippines
The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), respectfully submit this position paper to the House of Representatives Committee on Human Rights to support the enactment of a comprehensive and effective law for recognition and protection of human rights defenders in the Philippines.
There is a significant implementation gap between the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders), on the one hand, and national laws and policies to support and protect human rights defenders. There is also a proliferation of national laws which restrict and criminalize human rights defenders’ work.
The legal recognition and protection of human rights defenders is crucial to ensuring they can work in a safe, supportive environment free from attacks and unreasonable restrictions. The situation underscores the need for a strong policy to provide safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders by implementing measures of legal recognition and protection under national laws and international mechanisms.
Following the 3rd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Philippines in May 2017, majority of the recommendations made by various States called for an end to violence against human rights defenders. Nineteen (19) States mentioned protection of human rights defenders in their recommendations. It is worth noting that the entire reporting period prior to the UPR was significantly marked by a general recognition of human rights defenders and the importance of their work. However, the prevailing environment for human rights defenders in the Philippines is dangerous as elaborated in various reports made by regional and international human rights organizations such as Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM ASIA), Global Witness, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Organisation Mondiale Contre la Torture (OMCT) or World Organisation Against Torture, International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Front Line Defenders.
Many international reports offer various recommendations aimed at eliciting greater recognition of the role of human rights defenders, affording them better protection and empowering them to continue their legitimate human rights activities.
In the 2017 annual reports of the Global Witness and Front Line Defenders and HRDs Memorial Network which tagged the Philippines as one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders with Colombia, Mexico and Brazil in the list.
Based on documentation, the TFDP documented twenty (26) cases from January to June 2018 alone. These include the killing of Datu Victor Danyan, chair of T’boli Manobo S’daf Claimants Organization (TAMASCO) in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato and continuing harassment of TAMASCO indigenous rights defenders and vilification of many human rights defenders such as Bernardino “Toto” Patuigas, former Secretary-General of the Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (NAHRA) and Sister Susan Bolanio, executive director of the Oblate of Notre Dame, HESED Foundation, Inc.
Various evidences and documentation show daunting challenges remain across the country in terms of ensuring that human rights defenders can carry out their peaceful and legitimate activities in a safe and enabling environment without fear of being subjected to acts of intimidation or violence of any sort. The situation underscores failure of the authorities to conduct prompt and impartial investigations into alleged violations, prosecution of the perpetrators, provision of redress and enforcement of court decisions lead to further attacks and human rights violations against human rights defenders.
Twenty years after the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adoption, many governments like the Philippines continue to fail to implement and respect the Declaration, particularly the duty to protect defenders from violence and attack as a consequence of their legitimate human rights work.
TFDP supports the introduction of legislative measures for legal recognition and protection of human rights defenders in the Philippines such as Senate Bill No. 1699, “Human Rights Defenders Act of 2018” filed by Sen. Leila de Lima and House Bill No. 1617, “Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2016” filed by Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate et al and House Bill No. 8128, “Human Rights Defenders Protection Act of 2018” by Rep. Edcel C. Lagman, one of the leaders of Mambabatas Para sa Karapatang Pantao (MAKATAO).
TFDP notes that House Bill No. 8128 reflects the majority of the elements of the Model Law https://www.ishr.ch/news/model-law and in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and as such we consider would be comprehensive in the recognition and protection of human rights defenders in the Philippines.
From TFDP’s experience and series of consultations with civil society organizations, key elements are essential to enactment of Human Rights Defenders Protection Law in particular the law should be inclusive (or without selectivity) and comprehensively enshrines the definition of human rights defenders set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and other relevant international human rights instruments. The creation of “The Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee”, Chapter IV of House Bill No. 8128, should ensure the representation of vulnerable groups such as women, indigenous peoples, rural poor, workers etc.
TFDP upholds the principle of universality of human rights and that any national law for the recognition and protection of human rights defenders must be in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and allow for the creation of a legal environment that is supportive of the work of human rights defenders rather than restrictive.
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