The Places Where Human Rights Matter


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Keynote Message of Sen. Leila M. de Lima on the Colloquium on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders at the Cocoon Hotel, Quezon City

(Editor’s Note: The Message was read by Atty. Fhillip Sawali, Chief of Staff, of Sen. De Lima)


Two decades and a year ago, governments assembled at the UN and unanimously adopted the 1998 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which came to be known later as the “UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”. It acknowledges the importance that human rights defenders and civil society actors play in promoting the principles that support human rights. Crucially, it imposes the responsibility upon states to implement and respect all of its provisions, particularly the duty to protect HRDs from harm as a consequence of their work.

The Declaration does not establish new rights and duties but instead recasts existing ones and applies them to the specific situation of HRDs. It acknowledges the critical role being assumed by HRDs in the promotion and defense of human rights which often exposes them to particular and additional risks, thus necessitating explicit measures for their protection.

In adopting the Declaration in 1998, governments had pledged to support the role and work of HRDs. Yet today, the spirit and language of that Declaration are being flagrantly flouted. 

Ang malubha: pamahalaan mismo ang umaatake o nag-eenganyo ng pag-atake sa mga mamamayan; pamahalaan mismo ang yumuyurak sa mga karapatang pantao; pamahalaan mismo ang nagbabale-wala kundi man lantarang nagbabalahura sa papel at gawain ng mga nagtatanggol sa mga karapatang pantao.

           All around the world, human rights defenders have been threatened, stigmatized or ostracized for their work. They have been physically attacked, arbitrarily arrested, unlawfully detained, tortured, and subjected to various forms of persecution.  Some have even been killed.

          In the 2017 report of Amnesty International, “Human Rights Defenders Under Threat – A Shrinking Space for Civil Society”, it is estimated that, since 1998 when the Declaration was adopted, over 3,500 HRDs have been killed for their peaceful work defending human rights. It is even observed that in the majority of the cases, no one has been convicted or even charged for these crimes.

In different regions of the world, the civic space – in which there is a free flow of information, where there can be open and robust discussion, and where people participate fully in political and social life – is being undermined, eroded, or shut down.

In Hong Kong, months-long demonstrations by young pro-democracy activists have been met with police brutality that has often led to incidents of violence and chaos on the streets. In Turkey, which has been placed under a state of emergency since 2016 by President Recep Erdogan, more than 110,000 public officials have been dismissed or suspended without due process, while hundreds of media outlets, associations, foundations, private hospitals and schools have been ordered to close shop arbitrarily, with their assets confiscated without compensation. In Venezuela, more than 12,500 people have been arrested since 2014 in connection with protests against President Nicolas Maduro; people were taken from their homes without warrants.

Of course, we need not look too far from our own backyard.  Homegrown tyrant Rodrigo Duterte is engaging in a war against human rights defenders since Day 1 of his presidency. Already, 167 HRDs have been killed under the Duterte administration, with 6 cases of enforced disappearance, according to Karapatan. Of the 3,229 persons who were subjected to questionable arrests, HRDs hold a majority.   

There is no surprise here. By his appalling rhetoric and antics, Duterte has almost successfully perverted the rule of law, has enabled a climate of terror and fear within and outside government, and has relentlessly demonized the concept of human rights itself. We are in fact experiencing the worst human rights crisis in Philippine history.

In December 2018, the UN named the Philippines as one of the countries whose governments subject HRDs and activists to “an alarming and shameful level of harsh reprisals and intimidation.” In September 2016, just a few months from Duterte’s assumption of presidency, then UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein concluded that “[t]he President of the Philippines’ statements of scorn for international human rights law display a striking lack of understanding of our human rights institutions and the principles which keep societies safe.”

          The 2017 report of the UN Working Group on the Philippines’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommended, among others, the adoption of a national law for the promotion of the rights of the HRDs and the establishment of a climate conducive to their work. However, the Philippine government merely noted, but did not commit to support the recommendations in the said Report.

          Nonetheless, these developments – nay, reversals – should not diminish our resolve in the human rights community to continue pushing for a national law protecting the rights of HRDs. Now, more than ever, we need the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act. We need a law that will safeguard the HRDs from harm, and help create an environment that will enable us to effectively carry out our mission. Trusting that our work and worth are truly invaluable in making a safer and more humane society – as we bravely challenge injustice, oppression and inhumanity anywhere; as we risk even our own lives when we speak truth to power anytime – we must push for the passage of a law that will defend the defenders.

          But, as I emphasized in last year’s Human Rights Defenders Summit, our drive for the passage of the HRD protection bill should not and cannot be a stand-alone campaign. It should not and cannot be pursued independently from the bigger struggle for the return of democracy and the reinstitution of a human rights regime in our country.

          Sinabi ko po noong isang taon at nais kong ulitin ngayon:

Ang mas malaking hamon sa ating mga HRDs: ang magpunyagi para makamit ang isang pulitikal at lehislatibong kahandaan para tuluyang maisabatas ang sistemang poprotekta sa gawain at kapakanan ng mga nagtataguyod ng karapatang pantao. Kritikal dito ang ipanalo sa isip at puso ng mga Pilipino na ang ating mga karapatan ay may tunay na kahulugan at pakinabang sa indibidwal na buhay ng bawat isa, at may saysay sa pagsasaayos ng bansa. Mahalaga ring mahikayat ang sapat na bilang ng mga lider na tataya para sa karapatang pantao at maniniwalang mahalaga ang mga ipinaglalaban ng mga HRDs.

Our campaign for the passage of the HRD Protection Act cannot and should not be divorced from the larger struggle for restoration of democracy, respect for sovereignty and rule of law, and triumph of social justice in our country. We must establish the broadest coalition of geographical and sectoral formations under a common banner of dignity and freedom for all. We must also seek to be understood in the language of the ordinary Filipinos.” 

So, it is a must that we intensify our campaign for the enactment of the HRD Protection Act. It is imperative that we link that initiative to the broader quest of our people for democracy and rule of law. The challenge however is this: how do we do it? How do we create a sizable constituency in support of a national legislation protective of the HRDs, and, at the same time, subsume that base of support within a larger movement that champions democracy in the Philippines and the dignity of the Filipino.

I believe that the methods we adopt are as important as the objectives we espouse.  Sun Tsu, in The Art of War, once said:  “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

In a recent report entitled, “Be the Narrative: How Changing the Narrative Could Revolutionalize What it Means to Do Human Rights”, Colombia-based human rights think-tank JustLabs, in partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights, has generously offered very practical ideas for human rights workers and civil society actors: Empower people to talk about politics. Create more spaces for dialogue. Bring people closer together. Move efforts from judicial institutions and parliaments to daily life, bars, museums, and communities. Shift the terrain from the courts and television studios, where human rights actors are currently being outplayed by populists and autocrats, to places such as community centers, public markets, town plazas, and churches. Let the artists, cultural workers, and youth leaders take the lead. Capture the heart more than the minds of their audiences, by talking more about “human” and less about “rights.”

Kailangang isentro natin ang “tao” sa usapin ng kanilang mga karapatan. Kailangang mailapat natin sa lupa ang matatayog nating mga kaisipan at ipinaglalaban.

There can be effective and alternative approaches in carrying out our human rights work, and in bridging that work towards a larger quest for a free, safe and more equal society.  There has to be a “new narrative”, a different way of doing human rights work that celebrate humanity, and all the positive things that make us truly human: compassion, togetherness, family.  This narrative projects a hopeful message of peace and love, believing that this positive message can have as much political currency and legitimacy as the message of hate, fear and division. It is deeply cultural, tenaciously embracing the creative sector to galvanize the imagination of a broad, non-aligned public, and establishing a human rights constituency by talking about values and not issues, so that it can exist beyond the pale of politics and partisanship.  This can allow human rights to bring shared values to life in an open and welcoming way that makes it easy for friends and allies to join them – transplanting such values from highly technical, politically-charged and legal spaces to deeply cultural, more day-to-day ones.

In this light, let me end with the fitting words of Eleanor Roosevelt, chairperson of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I tried translating into Filipino, thus: 

“Saan nga ba nagsisimula ang pandaigdigang karapatang pantao? Sa maliliit na lugar na malapit sa tahanan – napakalapit at napakaliit na hindi mo sila mahahagilap sa alin mang mapa sa mundo. Sila ang mga lugar ng karaniwang tao: ang pamayanan kung saan siya nakatira; ang paaralan kung saan siya pumapasok; ang pabrika, parang, o opisina kung saan siya naghahanap-buhay. Iyan ang mga lugar kung saan ang lalaki, babae, at bata ay naghahanap ng pantay na katarungan, pantay na opurtunidad, pantay na dignidad na walang pagtatangi o kaapihan. Kung walang saysay ang mga karapatan sa mga lugar na ito, wala rin silang saysay kahit saanman. Kung wala ang sama-samang pagkilos ng mamamayan upang pangalagaan ang mga karapatan sa mga maliliit na lugar na ito na malapit sa tahanan, wala tayong maaasahang pag-unlad sa malaking mundo.”

Mabuhay ang mga human rights defenders! Maraming salamat po. ###

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