May 18, 2024

Two contrasting views emerged during the public consultation on the proposed human rights defenders ordinance held by the City Council.

Authored by councilors Peter Fianza, Arthur Allad-iw, Fred Bagbagen, and Jose Molintas, the proposed ordinance seeks to safeguard human rights defenders in the city from red-tagging, threats, and political vilification.

It imposes responsibilities on public authorities to prevent violations and support human rights education while also introducing protective measures like sanctuaries and psychosocial assistance for defenders facing derogatory labeling.

To refine the proposed ordinance, the committee on laws, human rights, and justice chaired by Molintas engaged barangay officials, educators, youth, representatives, the Commission on Human Rights, and government entities like the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to gather their inputs.

Among the 200 participants, Col. Virgilio Noora, commander of Joint Task Group Baguio and AFP representative, raised his oppositions against the proposed ordinance.

He questioned the vagueness of the term “human rights defenders”, adding the definition could lead to preferential treatment and ambiguity in identifying who qualifies as a defender.

He said State forces like the Philippine Army should also be considered human rights defenders by virtue of their oath of office.

He added human rights violations can be committed by anyone and there should be equal accountability regardless of the perpetrator’s affiliation. 

He said State forces also experience human rights abuses and human rights protection should extend to all individuals including citizens, soldiers, police officers, and government officials, not just those identified by the ordinance as defenders.

He expressed opposition to the provision of the ordinance on the establishment of sanctuaries for human rights defenders, claiming this could be abused by criminals or those evading legal processes under the guise of being defenders.

Noora explained insurgency in the country dates back to 1969 and it exists because, over the years, the military had primarily focused on armed groups but neglected the root causes represented by the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army, and National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

However, he said the AFP had shifted its attention towards addressing the presence of these communist groups.

Noora said the AFP is willing to leave Baguio City if it was declared insurgency-free through proper processes.

He said this move would allow them to focus on defending the country’s territory, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

“The reason we are here is because of the ongoing political struggle involving the CPP-NPA-NDF,” Noora said.

On the other hand, Molintas said activism is not terrorism.

He said if military personnel, who are duty bearers of human rights as they claim, consistently upheld human rights standards, complaints would likely decrease. 

Unfortunately, according to Molintas, complaints of human rights abuses committed by State forces persist, especially from the youth and urban poor sectors, thus the need to pass the proposed ordinance to address these issues.

Molintas criticized Noora’s assertion that State forces should receive the same human rights protection accorded to ordinary citizens.

“If you’re crying foul over your rights being violated, do you want us to declare the other groups as the government too? We only have one government in the Philippines. The government that signed international human rights agreements is the single government of the country. If you allow the NPA to sign international human rights agreements, they will also be held accountable for human rights violations. They are not recognized as a government, unless you’re unofficially recognizing them,” Molintas said.

The councilor emphasized that by embracing various forms of activism and fostering democracy, the appeal of joining armed groups would diminish. He said rebellion often stems from the absence of democratic space for people to freely express themselves.

“We should allow people to express their advocacies rather than branding them as communists or terrorists. If this proposed ordinance is approved, human rights defenders would have recourse for redress from the barangay level up to the city level,” he said.

He urged the AFP not to attribute insurgency solely to issues with democracy but to understand its connection to poverty, particularly in rural areas which also affects urban areas like Baguio City.

“Addressing the root causes, such as poverty and government corruption, is crucial. This is a more effective and fruitful endeavor rather than resorting to armed conflict,” Molintas said.

He added activists play an essential role in instigating positive changes and that their advocacy ensures a responsive government that works towards creating a peaceful community where everyone can enjoy their rights.

Expressing support to the proposed ordinance, Christian Dave Ruz of the Cordilleran Youth Center said the ordinance serves as a commitment to make people feel that the city is an inclusive human rights city and open to the voices of its citizens.

Ruz said human rights violations are more specific when it involves the government and State forces because they are entrusted with upholding and protecting human rights. Abuse by ordinary people is already considered a crime, he said.

“When the government violates its citizen’s rights, it constitutes a human rights violation which is different from any abuse committed by an ordinary citizen. Passing this proposed ordinance means officials are ready to be accountable. This will ensure a vibrant democracy for citizens,” Ruz said.

Daisy Bagni, another participant in the public consultation representing ORNUS, an alliance of urban poor in the city, recommended including in the proposed ordinance regular monitoring of human rights violations, human rights orientation for communities and barangays, abolishing or rejecting all task forces resembling the Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), revoking the “Dumanun Makitungtong” strategy, and retraining state security forces on public safety protocols.

Bagni described the “Dumanun Makitungtong” strategy as a local approach implemented by the PNP and AFP that involves tactics such as threats, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and coercion of individuals associated with progressive or activist organizations and individuals.

Joanna Carino, an activist and recipient of the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, sought the swift approval of the proposed ordinance to protect activists from red-tagging and ensure their safety.

Carino called for serious measures to address ongoing red-tagging and terrorist-labeling of democratic organizations and activists by enforcing mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the ordinance. 

She also recommended the representation of human rights defenders in local human rights action teams, widespread human rights education, continued education for military and police, consideration of economic and social rights, and enhanced collaboration among stakeholders to achieve a truly inclusive human rights city in Baguio.

Mayor Benjamin Magalong emphasized the importance of speaking up and advocating for human rights.

He reflected on past abuses by the military and acknowledged the role of human rights violations in driving the people to side with the left.

Magalong also shared personal experiences of being red-tagged and portrayed as aligning with communists. He said if even a government official like himself could be subjected to such labeling, the risk for ordinary citizens facing similar accusations was even higher.

Fianza, a co-author of the proposed ordinance, said the proposal was a result of collective efforts from various constituents.

He said Isabela, Basilan was the first to adopt a similar ordinance followed by two other municipalities.

A human rights defenders bill was passed in Congress in 2004, with subsequent attempts in 2019 and 2021 that passed the House of Representatives but later stalled in the Senate. – Jordan G. Habbiling