The Human Rights Defenders Bill passes first hurdle

The bill aims to institutionalize and enforce state obligations to provide protection to human rights defenders and to establish legal remedies for violations of the rights of the human rights defenders.

In the wake of the recent United Nations report naming the Philippines as one of the countries whose governments subject human rights defenders and activists to an alarming and shameful level of harsh reprisals and intimidation, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Human Rights has passed the Human Rights Defenders Bill, which the Kiyo, Solidagro, Viva Salud consortium partners have persistently been lobbying for.

The bill aims to institutionalize and enforce state obligations to provide protection to human rights defenders and to establish legal remedies for violations of the rights of the human rights defenders. It obliges the state to undertake necessary measures to ensure that human rights defenders are able to undertake their activities and work in a safe and enabling environment free from restriction.

The bill was authored by progressive legislators belonging to the Makabayan (Nationalist) bloc in Congress. Representing the marginalized sectors in Congress, the Makabayan bloc has been consortium partners' constant ally in lobbying for legislation that advances the right to health, right to food, and women's and children's rights in Congress.

Calling the bill a landmark legislation, no less than the Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed elation for the recognition of said bill by the Committee on Human Rights.

This legislation is very significant, a landmark legislation. Should this be passed, this will probably be the first law of its kind in the Asia Pacific region that will put flesh to the UN Declaration on Human rights Defenders, which is this year commemorating its 20th anniversary,” said CHR Chairperson Chito Gascon

Karapatan recorded 84 human rights defenders killed under the Duterte administration. They are among the 141victims of political killings targeting members and leaders of people’s organizations critical of Duterte administration’s regressive policies and authoritarian tendency. Duterte tagged human rights defenders as enemies of the state even as he publicly instructed the police to shoot human rights activists who are “obstructing justice”.The latest case is the killing of human rights lawyer and food security advocate Benjamin Ramos. Before his death, Atty. Ramos was providing legal assistance to the families of nine sugarcane workers who were slain in Sagay, Negros Occidental. The Philippine National Police maliciously accused the victims of land grabbing a portion of a large landholding which is supposed to be covered by the government’s agrarian reform and distributed to its workers a long time ago.

In a letter of support for the passage of the Human Rights Defenders Bill, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development reiterated the consortium partners’ and human rights defenders’ call for the urgent passage of the bill amidst the continuing barrage of attacks against them by the state’s security forces.

Defenders across movements are subjected to surveillance and face threats and vilification through all forms of communication and media. It is an urgent matter to bring into existence a legitimate system of protection that allows prosecution and perpetrators of human rights violations. Additionally, the immediate passage of such measure will give flesh to the Philippines’ adoption of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which turns 20 this year. It is the affirmation of the State’s vital role as duty-bearers to uphold the rights of all HRDs by virtue of protection against retaliation, violence, threats, and actions that result from their line of work.”

The human rights committee will formally transmit the bill to the Plenary Affairs Bureau for the second reading where the period of debates and amendments takes place. After the amendments, the final reading comes next during which all the members will vote for its passage or disapproval.

Last December 10, the consortium partners joined the progressive social movement in a demonstration to mark the commemoration of the International Human Rights Day and condemn the worsening human rights situation under the Duterte administration.#