UN expert urges passage of PH law defending human rights defenders; calls for the surfacing of land reform advocate Steve Abua

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor urged the Philippine government to legislate the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill as a show of its commitment to human rights treaties and standards.

In a side event at the ongoing 52nd Regular Season of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland last Thursday [March 23, 2023], Lawlor said human rights defenders face attacks, killings, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and stigmatization campaigns in the Philippines.

“The killings of defenders are rarely investigated which increases the vulnerability of those who remain active while undermining the human rights community’s confidence in the justice system,” she said.

Lawlor said that she wrote a letter of allegation to the Philippine government in 2021 following the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” raids across four provinces in Southern Tagalog that resulted in the killing of nine human rights defenders and indigenous peasants and the arrest of nine others.

Lawlor stated that the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in July 2020, “further compounded the precarious situation of human rights defenders by legally formalizing the practice of ‘red tagging’ defenders by its overly-broad definitions of terrorism.”

“I join other mandates in sharing our concerns regarding the designation of individuals, and civil society, and humanitarian organizations as ‘terrorists’ in the context of ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders, and political opponents,” she added.

Also in a recent statement on March 21, Lawlor said she received disturbing reports on the recent designation of Dr. Naty Castro under the ATA. (full statement: https://srdefenders.org/information/more-disturbing-news-of-threats-to-hrds-in-the-philippines/)

“Red-tagging and being designated as a terrorist are dangerous labels for human rights defenders in the Philippines. The country is again considering legislation to protect its Human Rights Defenders, but news that those peacefully advocating for the rights of others are being threatened is disturbing,” she said.

The UN expert urged the Philippine government to comply with human rights treaties and standards she said are complementary and mutually reinforcing goals for effective counter terrorism measures.

“I have been following very closely the developments on the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, which is a great possibility. The act proposes, among others, the recognition of human rights defenders, human rights organizations and their work, the obligations of state actors towards them, and the creation of a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee in line with the Human Rights Defenders Declaration,” she said.

“As we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, I couldn’t think of a better way that the Philippine government could show its value, its worth, than adopting and implementing this act. It definitely would show commitment to the work of human rights defenders,” Lawlor added.

Investigate Abua’s disappearance

Lawlor also asked the Philippine government to investigate the disappearance of Central Luzon farmers and indigenous people’s organizer Steve Abua.

“In January 2022, I wrote to the Philippine government regarding the disappearance of human rights defender Mr. Steve Abua, a peasant leader who advocates for land rights and human rights of peasants and national minorities, particularly in Central Luzon,” Lawlor said in her speech.

She said Nabua had been reaching out and offering support to members of peasant communities and other organizations throughout 2021 following the reported forced surrendering of these communities to the (Philippine) Army due to their alleged involvement in the New People’s Army.

“Mr. Abua was reportedly last seen on the 6th of November 2021 and I urge the Philippine government to find out what happened to him and let us know,” Lawlor urged.

The side event was organized by prominent international human rights NGOs led by CIVICUS, also featuring as speakers Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers chairperson and International Association of Democratic Lawyers transitional president Edre Olalia, National Council of Churches in the Philippines secretary for Faith, Witness and Service Mervin Sol Toquero, and Cebu abduction survivor and Alliance of Concerned Teachers organizer April Dyan Gumanao.

Palabay, Olalia, Toquero, and Gumanao are part of the delegation of Filipino human rights defenders at the ongoing UNHRC Session, as it prepares for the adoption of the recommendations made by UN member states during the last Universal Periodic Review on the Philippines last November.

Full video: https://bit.ly/40wWGiy