Karapatan Position Paper on House Bill 1617

Karapatan Position Paper on House Bill 1617 or the Human Rights Defenders’ Protection Bill
Presented by Cristina Palabay, Karapatan Secretary General
Committee on Human Rights, House of Representatives
August 15, 2017


Madam Chairperson and members of the Committee on Human Rights and members of the House of Representatives, a very pleasant day to all of you. This is an important occasion, because in our recollection, this hearing on the proposed legislation on the rights of human rights defenders is a first in the many years since this measure was filed. This day is significant for human rights defenders in the Philippines, as a step forward in the discussions in House Bill 1617, which has been seen as one of the best examples of proposed legislations in the South East Asian region on human and people’s rights. 

HB 1617 is a product of the long history and social practice of human rights defense in the Philippines. The drafting of the bill is, by itself, an expression of and an exercise of our right to people’s participation in governance, as we in Karapatan, a broad spectrum of human rights defenders including lawyers, church people and journalists, and people’s organizations were involved every step of the way. It is thus also a long-overdue measure, as nearly twenty years ago, in 1998, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was signed by the Philippines as a State party. 

Several UN independent experts have since voiced out concern on numerous attacks against Filipino human rights defenders, the latest of which is expressed through a July 31, 2017 joint statement of three independent experts including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. This proposed legislation is, therefore, an urgent response to a situation that has long been on emergency mode. 

The explanatory note in the proposed legislation further illustrates the situation of human rights defenders and the dire need for a domestic remedy for the protection, promotion and defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms. “A foot in the grave” best describes the work of human rights defenders on the ground. 

The Philippine government has continuously neglected human rights and treated dissenters and activists as enemies of the state. Many innocent civilians were also victims by the wholesale tagging of the police and military in communities as rebel coddlers and sympathizers. All of these violations were carried out under the many counter-insurgency programs that have been implemented from one administration to another. 

To immediately protect the life and liberty of activists and ordinary civilians from the attacks and abuses of State forces, human rights defenders form quick reaction teams and fact finding missions to respond to these cases, to blunt further worse attacks or to assist in the providing access to legal remedies. During the actual conduct of work of human rights defenders on the ground, there is great difficulty in providing legal and paralegal assistance. Oftentimes, human rights defenders are disallowed access to police and blotter reports, among other public documents. They are also prevented and disallowed to see and inspect military camps and detention facilities. Section 9 or the right to provide paralegal or legal assistance and Section 16 or the right to access documents of government units and personnel, paramilitary unit and personnel, and military affiliate and assets, of the proposed bill addresses this problem.
Human rights defenders are being harassed, threatened and villified by State agents. They are under surveillance, tailed and also arbitrarily tagged as NPA members or supporters. This is the reason why AFP Chief Eduardo Año’s PhP100,000 bounty for every NPA member arrested or killed is a very dangerous move, because as we have learned, it is very easy and arbitrary for State security forces to tag any one and everyone, including human rights defenders and civilians, as NPAs. 

Some are even included in the order of battle list and mission orders by the military. This hinders human rights defenders from effectively carrying out their tasks to protect and defend human rights. Section 11 of the proposed law recognizes the right of human rights defenders against false labelling or name calling, or of malicious and fabricated accusations against him/her of any offense, or from any other kind of villification.

Karapatan has documented cases of killings, arrests, threats, villification, harassment and other abuses against human rights defenders in the past and at present, perpetrated by State agents. 

On April 21, 2003, Eden Marcella, secretary general of Karapatan-Southern Tagalog and Eddie Gumanoy, chairperson of Katipunan ng Samahang Magbubukid sa Timog Katagalugan (KASAMA-TK), were brutally killed. The two were part of a fact finding mission in Naujan Oriental Mindoro to investigate the killings and abduction in Gloria and Pinagmalayan towns. The two were abducted and eventually killed by government forces led by then Col. Jovito Palparan. Marcellana headed various fact finding missions in Oriental Mindoro. She exposed the involvement of the military in human rights abuses in Mindoro under Palparan’s command. The AFP later tagged her as a terrorist. Since the deaths of Marcellana and Gumanoy, not one perpetrator of their gruesome killing was held accountable. 

To date, since 2001, more than 40 human rights workers of Karapatan have been killed by the military, in the course of their work. This includes Fernando Baldomero, William Bugatti, Romeo Capalla, and Teodoro Escanilla. 

At least 474 HRDs were killed during the Arroyo presidency (2001-2010), and 139 during the Aquino presidency (2010-2016) while 50 HRDs have already been killed under President Duterte (July 2016-July 2017). In sum, a total of 663 HRDs were killed in a 16-year period. Majority of these are peasants, workers/trade unionists, indigenous peoples, Moro, women and youth human rights defenders -- all engaged in the work of defending the civil, political, socio-cultural and economic rights of their communities. Before they were killed, they experienced threats, harassment and other forms of villification as so-called “enemies of the State” and/or terrorists. 

On May 10, 2017, a fact finding mission was conducted in Sitio Alat-alatin, Brgy. San Francisco in Lopez, Quezon. The mission was led by Karapatan human rights workers to investigate the human rights abuses of the military. The fact finding team was surrounded by soldiers of the AFP Southern Luzon Command. The soldiers took photos of residents in the community and brought with them Ruel Segui, 41, who was later released. Many more similar cases of harassment were experienced during quick reaction responses and fact finding missions in different provinces. 

Since state agents were the usual perpetrators of killings, retaliatory trumped-up cases were also being filed against human rights defenders. In 2015, Honey Mae Suazo, secretary general of Karapatan-Southern Mindanao, Rev. Allen Bill Veloso, chairperson of Karapatan-SoCSKSarGen and Pastor Sadrach Sabella, secretary general of Karapatan SoCSKSarGen, together with other human rights defenders, were maliciously charged with and implicated in various trumped-up cases. Suazo was charged with kidnapping, serious illegal detention and violations of Anti-Trafficking Act. Meanwhile, Veloso and Sabella were charged with attempted murder, violations of the law for the protection of children and on international humanitarian law, and inciting to sedition. 

I and the principal author of this bill in the 17th Congress, Rep. Carlos Zarate, were also implicated in fabricated charges of trafficking and kidnapping. We were accused of trafficking and kidnapping nearly 2,000 Lumad evacuees seeking refuge at the UCCP compound in Davao City - preposterous, utterly ridiculous and baseless accusations against individuals who assisted the Lumad evacuees in finding sanctuary. I also found it ironic that I was charged based on the same law on trafficking of persons, since I personally participated in the drafting and lobbying of the said law as then Secretary General of Gabriela Women’s Party. The cases were filed by the CIDG-Philippine National Police and members of the 73rd IBPA and their assets in the local government. The said case was later on dismissed. 

Meanwhile, Suazo continues to experience harassment. On June 28, 2017, Suazo and three other peasant leaders were arrested at a checkpoint in Brgy. Lasang, Davao City for being ‘suspicious-looking’. They were later released. 

HB 1617 recognizes this predicament. Under Section 20 of the proposed bill, a human rights defender can file a motion to dismiss the criminal complaint filed against him/her if such complaint or information is related to his/her work.

Harassment, threats and villification continue, as if former Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s words “We eat death threats for breakfast” were uttered based on our situation. On the eve of July 20, 2017, I received an anonymous call from a man who refused to identify himself and who told me to stop my work as  human rights defender. The caller also said that “times are different now because it is martial law” and that I am included in their “list.” The cellphone number was later traced by netizens as belonging to a soldier of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Safety Battalion. Environmental activist Sherwin de Vera, also a former Karapatan human rights worker, Mary Ann Gabayan of the Ilocos Human Rights Alliance-Karapatan, and our human rights workers in Panay, Negros and the Caraga region have also received recent threats to their lives. One can only expect worse situations when martial law is declared nationwide. 

HB 1617 also recognizes the perilous work of human rights defenders and the threats they face. Section 19 of the proposed bill makes a temporary protection order available to human rights defenders against any government personnel and units, paramilitary personnel and units, military assets (or affiliates) through a petition with the Commission on Human Rights. 

The bill also empowers the Commission on Human Rights to promulgate rules and procedures covering the Petition for Temporary Protection Order and the complaint for contempt, which can be issued motu proprio by the Commission against State agents for refusing to abide by the temporary protection order.

The proposed bill also provides stricter penalties, ranging from prison temporal in its minimum to its medium period or a fine of PhP 100,000 or both at the discretion of the court against any government personnel, unit, paramilitary personnel or the whole complement or the government asset who impede, obstruct, or influence any preliminary investigation, administrative investigation, and/or petition by altering, destroying, mutilating, concealing, covering up, falsifying or making any false entry in any record, document, or specimen whereof, relative to any matter involving any human rights defenders, organizations or activities.

These and other pertinent provisions in the proposed measure are the reasons why we fully support HB 1617. If at all, what we can perhaps add to the provisions in the said bill are that of the particular situations and needs of, and redress measures, for women human rights defenders and activists in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who experience sexualized forms of attacks because of their gender.  

With the intensification of counter insurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan, and the extension of martial law in Mindanao, more human rights abuses are to be expected. It is thus more compelling and imperative for Congress to immediately pass HB 1617 to protect the rights of human rights defenders and that of the Filipino people, bearing in mind that ultimately, the State is the duty-bearer of rights. ###

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