The emergence of human rights defenders (HRDs) is both an indictment and a symptom of the failure and neglect of the government to fully protect, promote, and fulfill human rights. HRDs are surrogate defenders due to government’s default in its primary obligation as the official protector of human rights.
The tragic plight of Filipino HRDs as a result of the relentless persecution against them by the government shamefully aggravates the State’s culpable non-compliance with the constitutional mandate that the “State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights.”
The global concern on human rights was pronounced after World War II to foreclose repetition of the war’s brutalities and atrocities. Consequently, on 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Despite such momentous declaration, the UDHR lacked binding force. Thus, to give it enforceability and elaborate on its provisions, a succession of instruments ensued creating legally binding obligations on State Parties.
There are nine core international human rights instruments: Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention Against Torture; Rights of the Child; Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers; Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
The only one the Philippines has yet to sign is the Convention on Enforced Disappearance because the Philippines’ accession has been marooned in the Office of the President for over a decade now. Ironically, we already have a domestic law complementing this Convention - the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012, the only one in Asia.
The role and protection of HRDs have become crucial to the promotion and fulfillment of human rights. Accordingly, on 09 December 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”. Subsequently, the appointment of UN special rapporteurs on the situation of HRDs has been institutionalized, and a UN model national law on HRDs’ protection crafted.
An HRD is a person “who individually or in association with others, acts or seeks to act to protect, promote or strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms and welfare of the people at the local, national, regional and international levels.”
HRDs’ work embraces the gamut of human rights advocacy: articulation of human rights from civil liberties to health, economic, and cultural rights; training and education; formation of associations; peaceable assembly; monitoring of violations; demands for investigation and accountability; ending impunity; counseling and lawyering; lobbying for protective legislation; coordinating with kindred domestic and international groups; and supporting human rights-based governance and policy.
Since they are highly effective, HRDs have been the targets and victims of harassment, persecution, and even liquidation by government security forces and non-state actors collaborating with state agents. The common violations of HRDs’ human rights include summary executions; torture; enforced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention; death threats; harassment and defamation; reprisals; false labeling; restrictions on freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly; malicious prosecution; and unjust conviction. All of these occur in the Philippines, including repressive legislation, red-tagging of cause-oriented critics, and profiling of lawyers of alleged “communist-terrorist” clients, all of which could have fatal consequences.
In the Philippines, among the recent HRD victims of human rights violations are:
Peasant leader Randall Echanis who was summarily killed on 10 August 2020 in his Quezon City home.
Social activist and educator Zara Alvarez who was assassinated on 17 August 2020 in Bacolod City.
Detained youth leader Reina Mae Nasino, her lawyers, and family who were harassed by police elements before and during the burial of Nasino’s child on 16 October 2020.
Nine Panay Tumandok tribal leaders who were slain in police and military operations on 30 December 2020 due to their suspected communist links.
Dozens of lumad children, teachers, and tribal leaders who were rounded up on 15 February 2021 in a police raid on an evacuee school at the University of San Carlos for being alleged communist recruits. Chad Booc, one of those arrested, is a petitioner against the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).
Village chief Julie Catamin, a key witness in the Tumandok slayings, who was killed on 02 March 2021.
Lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen, pro bono lawyer of the Tumandoks, and counsel against the ATA, who was repeatedly stabbed with a screwdriver by unknown assailants in Iloilo City on 03 March 2021.
Nine non-combatant activists who were slain almost simultaneously by police operatives on March 7, 2021 in Calabarzon, two days after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered state forces to disregard human rights and kill communist rebels.
International human rights organizations, including the UN Human Rights Council, have lauded the approval on third and final reading on 03 June 2019 by the House of Representatives during the 17th Congress of the “Human Rights Defenders Protection Act”. The Senate failed to act on it due to time constraints.
Three HRD protection bills in the 18th Congress are languishing in the House Committee on Human Rights, 20 long months after the first bill was filed, despite their entitlement to a fast lane since the House previously approved an identical measure.
The noble, courageous, and vigilant crusade of HRDs deserve the full recognition and genuine respect from the government. Their rights must be enshrined in law and the obligations of the State institutionalized by legislation. The “Human Rights Defenders Protection Act” must be enacted forthwith to protect the protectors.