By: Gabriel Pabico Lalu – Reporter /INQUIRER.net /January 25, 2022
MANILA, Philippines — An international watchdog has urged the Senate of the Philippines to pass the Human Rights Defenders Act, which is seen to protect rights workers from harassment and extrajudicial killings (EJKs).
According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the House of Representatives’ decision to pass the bill is a welcome move for rights workers, as many have complained of being harassed or even attacked due to their line of work.
The Observatory, a joint project of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) hopes that the Senate, the other chamber of Congress, would adopt the measure.
“The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) welcomes the adoption of the Human Rights Defenders Act by the Philippine House of Representatives, and calls on the Senate to pass a similar bill, in order to promulgate and implement a national protection law for human rights defenders in the Philippines,” the Observatory said.
“The act proposes, among others, the recognition of human rights defenders, organisations, and their work, obligations of state actors towards them, and the creation of a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee, in line with the provisions included in the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998,” it added.
The group was referring to the House Bill No. 10576 or the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act which was authored by Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel Lagman.
However, they noted that the House had already passed another bill in 2019 — the House Bill No. 9199 or the Human Rights Defenders (HRD) Protection Bill — which was not adopted by the Senate, resulting in the bill failing to progress into law.
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“The Observatory welcomes the passing of House Bill No. 10576 but recalls that in 2019, the House of Representatives had already adopted a Human Rights Defenders Bill under House Bill No. 9199,” the Observatory said.
“Yet, the Senate failed to adopt its corresponding bill and hence it was never enacted into a law, despite reiterated calls by international civil society and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders to prioritise the passage of legislation for the protection of human rights defenders,” it stressed.
The passage and enactment of such a law, the Observatory believes, would prevent more attacks on human rights defenders — from arbitrary arrests, harassment, and even killings, which they said have been the prevailing climate since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
“In the Philippines, human rights defenders face attacks, killings, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and stigmatization campaigns led by both state and non-state actors. Since President Duterte took power in June 2016, a climate in which attacks against human rights defenders are acceptable and legitimized has prevailed,” the Observatory said.
“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. In addition, the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed in July 2020, further compounded the precarious situation for human rights defenders by legally formalizing the practice of ‘red-tagging’ defenders with overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism,” it added.
In 2016, Duterte was elected into office through a promise of ridding streets of drugs. Later on, Duterte — a known ally of the left — waged a campaign against communism in the countryside.
However, many human rights groups and advocates have claimed that these two campaigns are being used to attack government critics and rights workers who have denounced the Duterte administration’s policies.
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But the government insists that President Duterte’s administration actually fulfilled its promise to pursue social justice and human rights in the Philippines.