New human rights chair assumes office amid criticisms


Posted at May 19 2008 09:01 AM | Updated as of May 19 2008 05:01 PM

By Purple S. Romero

Election lawyer Leila de Lima will officially assume the chairmanship of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) today amid lukewarm reception from human rights organizations which questioned her capacity to head the human rights body.

De Lima was appointed last May 12, 2008; the four other members of the commission have not yet been announced. De Lima replaced Purificacion Valera Quisumbing, who retired with the rest of the third commission last May 5. Quisumbing will start work as member of the advisory committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council this August.

The legal counsel of Genuine Opposition candidates Aquilino ‘Koko’ Pimentel III and Alan Peter Cayetano in the 2007 elections, De Lima was chosen to be the next CHR czar from a shortlist which included Cecilia Rachel ‘Coco’ Quisumbing, the executive director of the Presidential Human Rights Committee and daughter of the former CHR chair Quisumbing, former justice secretary and now newly appointed Cabinet Secretary Silvestre Bello, former congresswoman Loretta ‘Etta’ Rosales, and women’s rights’ advocate Ambassador Rosario Manalo.


Human rights groups such as Karapatan and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) questioned the appointment of De Lima, whom they say is as an outsider in human rights issues. In a statement issued last Friday, PAHRA pointed out De Lima’s lack of experience and knowledge on human rights.

House of Representatives’ committee on human rights head Rep. Lorenzo ‘Erin’ Tañada III earlier told that the selection of De Lima as the next CHR chair is a "political decision." He added that the choice for the CHR top seat should have strong background on human rights to have "continuity" in the body’s programs.

"The next CHR chair should have expertise or at least an advocacy on human rights to establish continuity in the work of the commission. Putting a greenhorn in human rights issues at the helm of CHR would force the commission to go back to zero again," he said.

The selection and appointment process for the fourth commission was hidden from the public. A nominee for the CHR headship, Senate legal counsel Carlos Medina scored the lack of transparency, which is pivotal in shaping the credibility of national human rights institutions as described in the Paris Principles.

First tasks

One of the first acts of De Lima is to participate today in the preparatory consultation workshop for the next national human rights action plan at the Manila Hotel. Around 200 representatives from various human rights groups and government agencies are expected to attend the event, which signals the start of a one-year flow of plans and consultative measures for the creation of the second national human rights action plan.

The crafting of the second national human rights action plan is viewed as a crucial step towards the improvement of the human rights situation of the country, especially in women empowerment, children rights’ protection, and migrant care.

Stakeholders from the government and the civil society are also expected to give more attention to the issue of extrajudicial killings, which have turned into an international concern following the report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in October last year, where he stated the killings are descriptive of a ‘culture of impunity.’

The first national human rights action plan was formed in 1996 as an outgrowth of the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. Originally to run on a four- year timeline until 2000, its timeframe was extended until 2002. It dwelled on the protection and promotion of the rights of marginalized sectors such as the disabled, the elderly, the urban poor and the rural workers.

De Lima is also scheduled to work with the European Union (EU) for the next two weeks to establish the terms of reference and other project details of the technical assistance program offered by EU to the Philippine government, Ambassador Alistair Macdonald told last week.

The three-million euro program, whose main objective is to increase prosecution in cases of extrajudicial killings, will takeoff from the recommendations listed by the Needs Assessment Mission which conducted a study of the human rights situation of the country in June 2007.

In its report released last March 2008, the mission rued the lack of independence of the CHR and the Office of the Ombudsman. It also called for sharpening of investigative skills of the Philippine National Police and faster dispensation of cases of extrajudicial killings from local courts.

In the technical assistance project, the EU pledged to extend training to the police forces on forensics analysis and provide them necessary equipment for laboratory examination of evidence in cases of extralegal violence.