UN expert urges passage of law protecting human rights advocates


Posted at Mar 25 2023 06:24 PM

Women's rights advocates picket in front of Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on October 28, 2020 calling against red-tagging of activists and human rights defenders. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/file
Women's rights advocates picket in front of Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on October 28, 2020 calling against red-tagging of activists and human rights defenders. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/file

Expert cites 'Bloody Sunday', red tagging as threat to human rights defenders

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor has urged the Philippine government to legislate the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill as a show of its commitment to human rights treaties and standards.

In a side event at the ongoing 52nd Regular Season of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland last Thursday, Lawlor said human rights defenders face attacks, killings, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and stigmatization campaigns in the Philippines.

“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,” she said.

Lawlor said she wrote a letter to the Philippine government in 2021 following the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” raids across four provinces in Southern Tagalog that resulted in the killing of nine human rights defenders and indigenous peasants and the arrest of nine others.

Lawlor said the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in July 2020, “further compounded the precarious situation of human rights defenders by legally formalizing the practice of ‘red tagging’ defenders by its overly-broad definitions of terrorism.”

“I join other mandates in sharing our concerns regarding the designation of individuals, and civil society, and humanitarian organizations as ‘terrorists’ in the context of ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders, and political opponents,” she added.

Lawlor also received reports on the recent designation of Dr. Naty Castro under the ATA. 

“Red-tagging and being designated as a terrorist are dangerous labels for human rights defenders in the Philippines. The country is again considering legislation to protect its Human Rights Defenders, but news that those peacefully advocating for the rights of others are being threatened is disturbing,” she said.

The UN expert urged the Philippine government to comply with human rights treaties and standards she said are complementary and mutually reinforcing goals for effective counter terrorism measures.

“I have been following very closely the developments on the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, which is a great possibility. The act proposes, among others, the recognition of human rights defenders, human rights organizations and their work, the obligations of state actors towards them, and the creation of a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee in line with the Human Rights Defenders Declaration,” she said.

“As we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, I couldn’t think of a better way that the Philippine government could show its value, its worth, than adopting and implementing this act. It definitely would show commitment to the work of human rights defenders,” Lawlor added.

Meanwhile, Lawlor also asked the Philippine government to investigate the disappearance of Central Luzon farmers and indigenous people’s organizer Steve Abua.

“In January 2022, I wrote to the Philippine government regarding the disappearance of human rights defender Mr. Steve Abua, a peasant leader who advocates for land rights and human rights of peasants and national minorities, particularly in Central Luzon,” Lawlor said in her speech.

She said Nabua had been reaching out and offering support to members of peasant communities and other organizations following their reported forced surrendering to the Philippine Army due to their alleged involvement in the New People’s Army. 

“Mr. Abua was reportedly last seen on the 6th of November 2021 and I urge the Philippine government to find out what happened to him and let us know,” Lawlor urged.