On the 25th year of Universal Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: CSOs Reiterate Call to Protect Human Rights Defenders

September 12, 2023

Attacks against human rights defenders continue under Pres. Marcos Jr. (Photos CTTO)
Attacks against human rights defenders continue under Pres. Marcos Jr. (Photos CTTO)

Today marks the 25th year of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) joins civil society organizations (CSOs) and their stakeholders in reiterating the urgent call to protect and uphold the rights of human rights defenders (HRDs) amid continuing impunity on human rights violations against them.

The member states of the UN General Assembly adopted the HRD Declaration by consensus in 1998. The need for this was raised in the 1980s amid increasing threats, reprisals and attacks against individuals working to defend human rights. The Declaration outlined the rights and responsibilities of States, HRDs, and all actors in society to ensure a safe and enabling environment for promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. (See here briefer on the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Filipino.)

Violations against HRDs include arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of civil and political rights, travel bans, criminalisation, land grabs and forced evictions, environmental destruction, denial of the right to education, smear campaigns that occur both online and offline, physical attacks and discrimination of all kinds. The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs recognizes how those who defend human rights are harassed, attacked, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, killed or suffer reprisals for the peaceful work they do.

The government claims that the human rights situation in the Philippines has improved but HRDs are still attacked with impunity. Killings and various forms of rights violations continue. Laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and the recently enhanced National Security Policy are weaponized against HRDs.  

According to Human Rights Alliance Karapatan, about 1.6 million HRDs have been subjected to various forms of threat, intimidation, and harassment from July 2022 to June 2023.

Enforced disappearances of HRDs still occur despite the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012 or Anti-Desaparecido Act (Republic Act 10353) which the government claims is enough even without ratification of the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances. Environmental defenders Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro who went missing in Bataan earlier this month are only the latest victims.

Fake and forced surrenders are rampant. For instance, local elements of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) reportedly forced members of a local farmers organization in Cauayan and Angadanan, Isabela to surrender as members of the CPP-NPA-NDF. Their group was only asserting their right to till their farmlands.

Members of peasant women organizations in Isabela were also reportedly red-tagged and their members repeatedly forced to sign documents for fake surrenders in their homes.  Similar harassments for fake and forced surrenders occur in other provinces.

HRDs among peasant and fisherfolk organizations, development workers and humanitarian workers also report surveillance, being followed by suspicious persons, and strangers asking neighbors about their whereabouts.

Red tagging persists. This puts the lives of HRDs in danger while also creating a chilling effect on HRDs and the communities they assist.  Agnes Mesina, Makabayan Cagayan Valley Coordinator, was red tagged by NTF-ELCAC after a consultation with farmers on how their families can cope with rising prices of food and other basic needs. There is a Php100,000 bounty on her.

Several cases have been filed against red-tagging government officials since 2020. Ombudsman Samuel Martires however said that his office has already dismissed red-tagging cases because there is no law against red-tagging.

IBON Foundation Executive Director and CPDG Board of Trustee Jose Enrique Africa denounced Ombudsman Martires’ statement saying that “Ombudsman Martires’ cowardly dismissal of red-tagging complaints confirms that government officials can use their position to accuse and vilify ordinary citizens with impunity. Falsity and fabrications are now more than ever woven into the code of conduct and ethical standards of the Marcos Jr administration and those that will follow.”

The government accepted six recommendations on upholding the rights of HRDs and ensuring an enabling space and environment for HRDs. One way to realize this is by passing and implementing legislation on HRDs. CPDG also calls on local government executives to pass an HRD ordinance in their localities. It urges the LGUs to unite with civil society in advancing the Filipino people’s democratic rights to active participation in governance and development planning to advance genuinely human rights-based and people-centered development.

CPDG also reiterates the urgent call to repeal the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, scrap E.O. 70 and its implementing arm the NTF-ELCAC; and the amendment or repeal of all other laws and mechanisms constricting civic spaces and are being weaponized against HRDs.

As the local elections draw near, CPDG urges Filipinos to choose leaders that commit to accountability and transparency, fight against corruption, and will defend and uphold people’s rights and welfare. #eof#