MANILA – Lamenting the plight of many other human rights defenders whose sentiments remain unheard and left out, a Palace official appealed to Congress to listen to their voices and advocacies.
“These are human rights defenders who are not mere newspaper articles or Instagram posts but are living and breathing individuals and groups that promote and protect human rights in grassroots communities. We honor their advocacies as we convey their sentiments and pleas in this hearing,” Undersecretary Severo Catura said in the Nov. 8 Congress committee hearing on the proposed Human Rights Defenders Act.
Catura, Executive Director of the Presidential Human Rights Committee Secretariat, in his statement, said the human rights defenders law is an instrument that will further open the country’s democratic civic space to more human rights defenders, many of them have been left out of the current human rights field.
The law, he said, must not promote “othering” or the exclusion of other groups that are also demanding that their human rights concerns need to be heard.
In inspiring inclusive participation that is a key principle in human rights, the law must ensure that anyone and everyone can be a human rights defender.
“The singling out of a handful of groups to constitute the slate of human rights defenders is a fine example of this “othering” we speak of,” he said, adding that human rights defenders are identified not by who they are, but by what they do to promote and protect human rights.
He, however, said being a human rights defender is not a job title nor a profession whose work needs to be regulated.
Catura, who is also spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, cautioned that any insistence of such a regulatory committee as mentioned in all the bills needs to be well thought of.
Rising number of human rights defenders
Given the increasing number of organized human rights defenders in the wake of an enabling and safe civic space, Catura said the law must be an act of moral ascendancy by the Legislature to recognize them.
He cited the thousands of human rights defenders and hundreds of organizations that banded together in June this year to condemn the killing of trade unionist Nolven Absalon and his cousin, varsity football player Keith Absalo in Masbate on June 6.
In September, Catura said several human rights defenders reached out to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with information on human rights abuses by the New People’s Army – the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“Such a number was so compelling that the High Commissioner had no recourse but to specifically mention these abuses in her report; a tacit call for the Philippine government to address such abuses,” he said.
Advocacies of human rights defenders vary though, he added.
There are former rape victims becoming advocates of anti-Violence Against Women, and the late Lauro Vizconde, whose wife and two daughters were killed by a gang of drug addicts, at the frontlines of the campaign against illegal drugs.
He also cited the mothers of children who were recruited to become child combatants coming together, condemning the culprits, and asking the government for help, and an indigenous peoples’ community calling for the release of one of their elders from the custody of another group.
“We have seen former child combatants denouncing the human rights abuses and atrocities committed by their former comrades,” Catura said.
No label monopoly
No one or no organization, he added, has a monopoly of the human rights defender label, regardless of whether he or she is a State or a non-State actor, or acting within a professional platform or outside of it.
He reiterated the United Nations (UN) inclusion of State agents whose profession directly impacts the promotion and protection of human rights.
Based on the UN guidance, he said government personnel, especially policemen and judges are deemed as human rights defenders in light of their mandates.
“That’s the reason why both the PNP and AFP have set up their own human rights offices that reflect their institutions’ fulfillment of their State obligation as duty-bearer, and yes defender, of rights,” Catura said.
He said the Philippines’ own measure should be compliant with UN prescriptions and standards.
“We refer not only to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which we fully support but to the clarificatory document from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which sets forth, in its Fact Sheet No. 29, entitled ‘Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights’,” he added.
He went on to say that the law must be clear that anyone claiming to be a human rights defender respects the three key UN-identified rights and responsibilities of human rights defenders.
These are respect for the universal applicability of rights; respect and recognition of fellow human rights defenders regardless of political inclination; and ensuring that advocacies are pursued in a peaceful manner in compliance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.“Any group that supports calls for the violent overthrow of the government cannot be deemed a human rights defender. Moreover, no human rights defender must throw its support for any organization that has been designated a terror group here and around the world by States and other international organizations, such as the European Union,” he said. (PNA)