Opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima has urged the Philippine government to heed United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s assessment about the plight of human rights defenders in the country, notably those critical of the administration.
De Lima made the statement after Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo belittled Forst’s World Report which calls, among others, on the Duterte administration to end all forms of violations committed against human rights defenders in the country.
“Mr. Panelo may have forgotten those several instances when no less than his boss, Mr. Duterte, constantly hurled insults and threats against human rights defenders. He has called us names and has branded us terrorists and enemies of the state,” she said.
“Instead of dismissal, the Duterte administration should take a second hard look at how it has deliberately aimed its attacks to silence human rights defenders, making us more vulnerable to harassment and our work more difficult and dangerous,” she added.
Last Dec. 19, Forst released an assessment report which highlighted the so-called “stigmatization, defamation, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrest, and criminalization of defenders” as a key area of concern in the Philippines.
According to him, human rights defenders in the Philippines – including De Lima – “are subject to smear campaigns and online harassment” by the government who falsely connect them to the drug trade, communist groups or terrorist groups.
Panelo, however, dismissed Forst’s report as “reckless and irresponsible” as he accused local groups which he claimed have been feeding false information to the United Nations in exchange for some financial benefits.
Named by Amnesty International as a human rights defender under threat, De Lima pointed out that intimidation, harassment and attacks against human rights defenders are deliberate to suppress any criticism or opposition against the government.
“In the last two years, the international community has consistently expressed grave concern about what is happening in the Philippines, and how this administration disregards human rights of individuals and organizations critical of its policies,” she said.
“Several international organizations and treaty-based committees have issued statements of serious concern over the plight of human rights defenders, and the present government could not just ignore these continuing concerns,” she added.
In his world report, Forst pointed out that Mr. Duterte’s War on Drugs, which was launched shortly after he assumed office in June 2016, “has created a climate of insecurity and impunity for extrajudicial killings that affects human rights defenders.” Citing De Lima’s plight as an example of the fate of human rights defenders under the government, Frost wrote that “In what could be considered to be part of a politically motivated defamation campaign, [D]e Lima was arrested in February 2017 and detained under the Dangerous Drugs Act for allegedly accepting money from ‘drug lords’. She has also been subject to intimidation, persecution and threats.”
Since Duterte has “fostered very harmful rhetoric against human rights defenders,” Forst is concerned that there are still no existing specific protection mechanisms for human rights defenders at risk in the Philippines and that three related legislative measures remain unacted, including De Lima’s Senate Bill (SB) No. 1699, or the Human Rights Defenders Act of 2018.
Amid the challenges human rights defenders are facing the country, Forst has called on the Philippine government to end its incessant attacks against them, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
A known human rights defender here and abroad, De Lima has since pushed for the passage of SB No. 1699 she authored which seeks to institutionalize and enforce State obligations for the protection of the rights of human rights defenders.