Video message delivered by Rep. Edcel C. Lagman during State Terror and the Protection of HRDs: An Online Forum on 31 August 2021.
Good afternoon to all human rights defenders (HRDs), their supporters and allies, and special thanks to the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) for spearheading this online forum on state terror and the protection of human rights defenders (HRDs).
It heartens me that despite the continuing crackdown on HRDs, you still proudly and fearlessly celebrate your invaluable work as protectors of human rights.
Three HRD protection bills in the 18th Congress under the former Chairman had languished in the House Committee on Human Rights, more than two years after I filed the first bill on July 1, 2019, despite their entitlement to a fast lane since the House previously approved an identical measure in the previous 17th Congress.
On 16 August 2021 I wrote a letter to the new Chairperson of the Committee on Human Rights, Rep. Bayani Fernando, requesting that the Committee schedule a public hearing on House Bill Nos. 15, 161, and 240, the three proposed HRD protection bills in the House of Representatives authored by this Representation, Rep. Christopher Belmonte, and the Makabayan bloc led by Rep. Carlos Zarate.
I am pleased to announce that the Committee on Human Rights has finally scheduled its first public hearing on the HRD bills on September 14, 2021. We now are about to take the next official step for the enactment of the HRD protection law.
The emergence of human rights defenders 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.”
All three HRD Protection Bills provide for the rights of HRDs and the corresponding obligations of public authorities to ensure protection of these rights, and the operation of the necessary mechanism for the law’s full and strict implementation.
House Bill No. 15 defines an HRD as “any 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, at the local, national, regional, and international levels.” This definition is broad and inclusive enough to cover HRDs in both government and private sector who may not be bona fide connected to any human rights organization.
Its other salient features include, among others:
Prohibits all public authorities from participating, by acts of commission or omission, in violating human rights and fundamental freedoms. Subordinate employees have the right and duty to refuse any order from their superiors that will cause the commission of acts that contravene their duty to protect, uphold, and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. Such refusal shall not constitute a ground for any administrative sanction.
Provides a modification of the provision on obligation to conduct investigations under the Model National Law for the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders which now reads as follows:
Whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that a human rights defender has been killed, disappeared, tortured, ill-treated, arbitrarily detained, threatened or subject to a violation of any of the rights in Chapter II of this Act, whether by a public authority or private actor, the State must ensure that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent, and impartial investigation is conducted with extraordinary diligence and is prosecuted under existing applicable laws, including but not limited to R.A. 9745, the Anti-Torture Act, R.A. 10353, the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act, and R.A. 7438, An Act Defining Certain Rights of Person Arrested, Detained, or Under Custodial Investigation as well as the Duties of the Arresting, Detaining, and Investigating Officers, and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof.
Prohibits the public authority offender from invoking presumption of regularity in the performance of duty. Presumption of regularity in the performance of duty, a common veneer to conceal accountability for a violation of human rights and freedoms, is proscribed (also consistent with the rule on the Writ of Amparo).
Mandates government agencies to enforce and institutionalize command responsibility and impose sanctions against errant superiors in both military and civilian agencies as provided under existing laws and executive issuances. This aims to make superiors equally responsible as the subordinates who directly executed the violation(s), and deter superiors from giving orders that cause or even force their subordinates to violate human rights and freedoms.
Mandates public authorities to adopt the human rights based approach to governance and development including in counter-insurgency and anti-terror programs and policies. It is, of course, hoped that this shall be complied with not only in rhetoric but in actual implementation of programs and policies.
Seeks to strengthen the Witness Protection Program of the Commission on Human Rights and mandates the Commission to provide sanctuaries for high-risk HRDs, particularly those who have filed formal complaints against high ranking officials in government;
Creates under an independent collegial body to be known as the Human Rights Defenders Committee composed of one Chairperson and six members. The Chairperson shall be selected by the Commissioners of the CHR from among themselves in an en banc The six members shall be jointly nominated by two representatives each of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan), Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) in a meeting called for this purpose. The nominees shall be appointed by the CHR not by the President to underscore the Committee’s independence of the Executive.
Its principal functions include, among others, (a) protect HRDs from intimidation and reprisals; (b) ensure accountability for acts of intimidation and reprisal; (c) investigate on its own or on complaint by any party all forms of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of human rights defenders; (d) consult regularly and work closely with HRDs in the implementation of this Act; (e) monitor existing and proposed legislation, assess their impact or potential impact on the status, activities and work of human rights defenders, and propose amendments andor remedial measures or block their passage if the measures shall adversely affect the human rights defenders and their work; and (f) Make recommendations on the appropriate measures to be taken to promote a safe and enabling environment for HRDs, mitigate and prevent the risks they face, and address the root causes of violations against human defenders.
Provides for ten guiding principles that shall be adhered to in implementing the Act and in formulating the corresponding rules and regulations. These include among others: adherence to the rule of law, active participation of HRDs in formulating, implementing and evaluating HRD protection programs, periodic risks assessments, confidentiality of personal data collected on HRDs, continuous training of the Committee Secretariat, sustained adequate resources, and transparent and equitable resource allocation.
These are very timely and relevant provisions in the light of condemnable violations of these rights of HRDs. The imperative of enacting an HRD Protection Law is dramatized by the vicious attacks against HRDs under this particular administration.
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.
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.
Thank you for your steadfast advocacy of this measure. Like principled and courageous warriors, I know you will remain undaunted and resolute in fighting not only for the enactment of the HRD Protection Law, but for a safe and enabling environment where you can freely pursue and ultimately fulfill your collective aspirations for a just and free society.