Opposing views clash over proposed human rights defenders ordinance


Two contrasting views emerged regarding the proposed human rights defenders ordinance during the public consultation held by the Baguio City Council on April 29, 2024.
Authored by Councilors Peter Fianza, Arthur Allad-iw, Fred Bagbagen, and Jose Molintas, the 13-page 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.
Prior to the filing of the proposed ordinance, Baguio City has officially been declared as an inclusive human rights city through a city council resolution.
To refine the proposed ordinance before its approval, the city council’s Committee on Laws, Human Rights, and Justice chaired by Molintas engaged barangay officials, educators, youth, representatives, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and government entities like the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to gather their perspectives and recommendations.
Among the 200 participants of the April 19 public consultation, Col. Virgilio Noora, Commander of Joint Task Group Baguio and AFP representative, stood out as a dissenting voice against the proposed ordinance.
Along with his statement of opposition to the proposed ordinance in general, Noora questioned the vagueness of the term “human rights defenders” as defined in the proposed ordinance. He claimed that this definition could lead to preferential treatment and ambiguity in identifying who qualifies as a defender. He asserted that state forces like the Philippine Army should also be considered human rights defenders by virtue of their oath of office.
He stressed that human rights violations can be committed by anyone, not just state forces and that there should be equal accountability regardless of the perpetrator’s affiliation.
He claimed that state forces also experience human rights abuses, thus, human rights protection should extend to all individuals including common citizens, soldiers, police officers, and government officials, not just those identified by the ordinance as defenders.
He expressed strong opposition specifically to the provision of the ordinance on the establishment of sanctuaries for human rights defenders, claiming that this could be abused by criminals or those evading legal processes under the guise of being defenders.
Citing existing laws and resolutions addressing human rights violations, he claimed that the proposed ordinance may duplicate these efforts and is therefore unnecessary.
Noora explained that insurgency in the country dates back to 1969 and that it still 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, recently, the AFP had shifted its attention towards addressing the presence of these communist groups, he said.
Furthermore, 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 stated.
On the flip side, Councilor Molintas stressed that activism is not terrorism. He reminded Noora that terrorism cannot be attributed to democracy.
He pointed out that 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 still 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 expressed.
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 stated.
He underscored that 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 explained that 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 stated.
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.
All three citizens (Ruz, Bagni, and Carino) shared their personal accounts of being red-tagged and labeled as communists and terrorists by state forces during the public consultation.
Showing up in the public consultation to express his support, 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 pointed out that if even a government official like himself could be subjected to such labeling, the risk for ordinary citizens facing similar accusations was even higher.
Liga ng mga Barangay President Rocky Aliping, Sangguniang Kabataan Federation President John Rhey Mananeng, Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative Maximo Edwin Jr., and the co-authors of the ordinance were also in attendance to demonstrate their support for the proposed ordinance.
Fianza, a co-author of the proposed ordinance, explained that the proposal was a result of collective efforts from various constituents. He said that Isabela, Basilan was the first to adopt a similar ordinance followed by two other municipalities.
He expressed hope that Baguio City would be the fourth local government unit to adopt such an ordinance.
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.
Fianza said that starting at the LGU level could potentially influence the Congress and Senate to expedite the passage of a human rights defenders law. **Jordan G. Habbiling


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