An Uphill Battle for Rights Defenders in the Philippines

In the face of worsening human rights situation in the Philippines and the increasing attacks on human rights defenders, the Kiyo, TWHA, Solidagro consortium partners have been working with progressive legislators for the passage of a bill that will defend the rights of the human rights defenders.

In November last year, human rights worker Elisa Badayos and peasant leader Elueterio Moises were gunned down by unidentified men while on a fact-finding mission to investigate on reports of human rights abuses against farmers fighting against a land-grabbing attempt by a local politician in the province of Negros Oriental in the Visayas. 

In February this year, the Department of Justice produced a terrorist list that included the names of about 50 human rights defenders as it filed a court petition to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army as terrorist organizations.  

Under Duterte’s presidency, human rights defenders have come under increasing attacks. 

Open season on human rights defenders
TWHA partner Karapatan recorded 84 human rights defenders killed under the current 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”.

It is important to note that TWHA, Solidagro and Kiyo consortium partner organizations in the Philippines have been engaged in carrying out a rights-based approach to development and are in the forefront, together with other progressive organizations, of confronting the worsening human rights situation, the repressive government policies and the Duterte administration’s overt hostility towards human rights groups and defenders. Hence, they have also been targets of attacks.  

For instance, a number of consortium partners' staff members and volunteers are facing trumped-up charges as a result of the work they carry out in defending the rights of poor farmers and indigenous peoples.  Several Lumad schools teachers, including a teacher of Solidagro partner ALCADEV, have been charged with child trafficking and child abuse on the allegation that they are teaching their students how to rebel against the government. Still, many of them have been under surveillance by military intelligence and have faced vicious harassments and threats. 

“We are being targeted for speaking out against the murderous and tyrannical Duterte regime. We will continue to exhaust all mechanism for redress and protection and exact accountability from the Duterte regime and its state forces,” said Tinay Palabay, Karapatan’s secretary general. 

The issue of human rights defenders being under threat was repeatedly raised during the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines last year. The recommendations from various countries include developing a protection system for the human rights defenders, an enabling environment to carry out their work, and the adoption of a national law for the promotion of the rights of the human rights defenders. Unfortunately, the Duterte administration did not commit to supporting the recommendations. 

Government’s disregard for human rights notwithstanding, the consortium partners led by Karapatan have vigorously worked with legislators and human rights groups in the crafting of a domestic legislation for the protection of the rights of human rights defenders. 

Human Rights Defenders Bill
They collaborated with progressive legislators belonging to the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representative in the filing of House Bill 1617, also known as the Human Rights Defenders Bill.  A Senate version has recently been filed by Senator Leila de Lima. Sen. De Lima, a staunch critic of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, has been languishing in jail for more than a year now, ironically, on drug charges filed by no less than the Department of Justice.

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. The bill 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.

Recently, Karapatan organized a briefing among key stakeholders that include the offices of legislators in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Commision on Human Rights, various diplomatic missions, and human rights defenders on the status of the proposed legislation and on finding ways to gain public support for its passage into law.      

Among those who attended the briefing were representatives from the British Embassy, EU Embassy, German Embassy, Danish Embassy, the office of Senators De Lima, Loren Legarda, Cynthia Villar, the Commission on Human Rights, Greenpeace, several partners of the consortium and several other civil societies and people's organizations. 

Representative Carlos Zarate of the Bayan Muna party-list and Atty. Jaqueline Mejia, from the office of Senator Leila de Lima, presented to the audience their respective bills and discussed key provisions that underscore the urgency of passing the bill into law in the face of the worsening human rights situation and heightening attacks against human rights defenders.

Mass movement and international support
Both speakers said that they are facing an uphill battle in pushing for the said bill. They, however, cited the importance of strengthening the mass movement as key towards achieving such goal and the role of international community in amplifying the call to stop the attacks on human rights defenders in the country.

 “Amid the onslaught of attacks against those who defend human and people’s rights, it has become increasingly imperative for the advocacy and enactment of the said measure, as this year also marks the 20th year of existence of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders,” Karapatan said in a statement. #