“A long overdue measure:” Karapatan urges Congress to pass law protecting rights defenders

Photo by Ara Eugenio/Reportr

As the House of Representatives’ Committee on Human Rights held its initial deliberation under the 18th Congress into the bills seeking the enactment of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, human rights alliance Karapatan expressed its support for the proposed legislation as it urged lawmakers to pass the “long overdue measure” amid the numerous and worsening attacks targeting human rights defenders and organizations in the Philippines, especially under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

“A law that protects human rights defenders is a long overdue measure. For decades, many of our colleagues have been attacked and even killed — and international human rights bodies have raised alarm over these threats and reprisals over the years. How many more defenders must die before the Congress acts upon these proposed measures? The Duterte administration’s blatant vilification and red-tagging of human rights defenders alone should compel our lawmakers to act,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated.

On Monday, November 8, the Committee on Human Rights held its initial deliberation into the House Bills Nos. 15 filed by Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman, 161 filed by Quezon City 6th District Rep. Jose Christopher Belmonte, and 240 filed by the Makabayan bloc. Palabay was one of the resource persons during the deliberation as Karapatan submitted its position paper before the committee outlining its recommendations and support for the proposed measures. The bills filed have been pending in the committee since July 2019.

The Karapatan official noted that 23 years ago, in 1998, the United Nations (UN) Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was signed by the Philippines as a State party: “A measure recognizing and protecting human rights defenders should have already been passed 23 years ago — and more than the Philippines being a signatory to international declarations, the situation on the ground deems necessary of more measures that will defend human rights defenders, who are constantly facing threats and reprisals for their work.”

To date, Karapatan has documented 215 extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders from July 2016 until August 2021 and 828 since 2001 — including 70 Karapatan human rights workers — who have been monitoring human rights violations committed by State forces in the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns and assisting victims. Many more experience judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, surveillance, threats, intimidation, and harassment online and offline, and other violations.

Palabay further stressed that several UN independent experts have since repeatedly voiced out concerns on these attacks, the latest of which are significantly detailed in the June 2020 report of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on the Philippines and by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor on her March 2021 report, who noted red-tagging as a context-specific death threat against human rights defenders in the Philippines.

With such specific situations and circumstances, the Karapatan official asserted during the initial deliberation that they “merit specific and immediate measures in order to not only deliver justice for those killed and violated but more importantly to ensure that non-repetition of such violations and that rights and fundamental freedoms are upheld and given the highest premium by the State as the primary duty bearer of rights.”

“These proposed measures are, therefore, 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 the 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 ended.