human rights defenders

House passes bill protecting human rights defenders

Jodesz Gavilan

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House passes bill protecting human rights defenders

HANDS OFF. Human rights groups trooped to the Quezon City Hall of Justice on November 6, 2019.

File photo by Rappler

House Bill No. 10576 seeks to give human rights defenders freedom from intimidation and reprisal on the grounds of their work, among others

MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives on Monday, January 17, passed a bill that seeks to protect and define the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders in the Philippines, who have been vilified and attacked under President Rodrigo Duterte.

A total of 200 legislators voted to approve House Bill No. 10576, the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, on third and final reading. No one voted against or abstained on it.

The bill spells out 17 rights and freedoms to be enjoyed by human rights defenders, once passed into law. These include the freedom from intimidation and reprisal on the grounds of their work and also the right to communicate with organizations, including international and regional bodies.

  • Right to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Right to form groups, associations, and organizations
  • Right to solicit, receive, and utilize resources
  • Right to seek, receive, and disseminate information
  • Right to develop and advocate for human rights ideas
  • Right to communicate with non-governmental, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations
  • Right against vilification
  • Right to access, communicate, and cooperate with international and regional human rights bodies and mechanisms
  • Right to participate in public affairs
  • Right to peaceful assembly
  • Right to represent and advocate
  • Right to freedom and movement
  • Right to privacy
  • Freedom from intimidation and reprisal
  • Right to establish a sanctuary for human rights victims and or their families
  • Freedom from defamation and stigmatization
  • Right to exercise cultural rights and to development of personality
  • Right to effective remedy and full reparation

The bill also highlighted the state obligations, adding that “public authorities shall take all necessary measures to ensure” that the rights and freedoms of defenders are guaranteed and protected, and that they work in “safe and enabling environment without restrictions,” among others.

The approved bill also seeks to establish a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee, an “independent collegial body” composed of members nominated by civil society organizations and appointed by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

The committee, according to HB 10576, will ensure that the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders are protected. It is also has the function to investigate incidents of abuses or violations, whether on its own or based on a complaint filed by victims.

The approved bill is a consolidated version of proposed bills from the following House members:

  • Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman
  • Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte
  • Makabayan bloc, including Bayan Muna Representatives Carlos Zarate, Eufemia Cullamat, and Ferdinand Gaite, Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas, ACT Teachers Representative France Castro, and Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago

Elago on Monday said that the bill’s passage was a huge win for youth human rights defenders.

Ito ay mahalagang hakbang pasulong para sa lahat ng mga tumitindig para sa karapatang pantao at batayang kalayaan sa harap ng mga tumitinding atake at mga paglabag sa karapatan,” she said on Twitter.

(This is an important step forward for those who stand up for human rights and freedoms in the face of mounting attacks and abuses.)

The latest passage of the bill comes amid continued violence under Duterte, who created “dangerous fiction” against human rights defenders and activists.

As of August 2021, rights group Karapatan had documented 421 incidents of killings since July 2016, while there were also 504 recorded cases of frustrated killings. (READ: Prelude to 2022? Thousands of grassroots organizers arrested, hundreds killed)

In October 2021, four United Nations special rapporteurs sent a letter to the Philippine government in which they expressed “grave concerns” that they “continue to receive information that, rather than improving, the situation for human rights defenders in the Philippines continue to deteriorate.”

This is not the first time the House of Representatives gave its nod to a bill protecting human rights defenders. In June 2019, legislators already passed a similar bill but did not prosper as Senate did not pass a counterpart.

Senate Bill No. 179, also called the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act and filed by Senators Leila De Lima and Risa Hontiveros, is still pending in the committee level since July 24, 2019.

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.