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Keynote Speech of Chairperson Loretta Ann P. Rosales
during the Opening Ceremonies of the Conference of the
Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates

24 March 2011

Ciudad Christia, Rizal

Human rights is all about human dignity.

This is the rationale for defending human rights, against tremendous odds. When we stand for other people's rights, we are at the same time claiming those rights for our own. Defending human rights is an expression of common humanity.

I think that this should be emphasized, because the work of a human rights defender can be such a lonely state of living. The perils that we encounter every day, from the harsh words we endure to the bullets we take, reinforce the feeling, so much so that at one point or another, each one of us is forced to reckon with a question quite similar to what a certain commercial ad promoting a certain brand of coffee is fond of asking – Para kanino ka bumabangon?

Ano nga ba ang mga kadahilanan sa patuloy nating pagsasama-sama sa pakikibaka para sa pagsasakatuparan ng karapatang mabuhay nang may dignidad?

Everyone is capable of defending human rights, but only those who are courageous enough choose to. Unfortunately, these courageous ones – the true human rights defenders – always find themselves in the frontline of the battle. Precisely because they defend the rights of others that they are now made the target of human rights violations. Everyday, human rights defenders have to contend with threats to their security and safety: they face death threats, enforced disappearance, torture and extra-judicial killing. Otherwise, they are persecuted through the abusive use of the judicial system or are silenced by restrictive laws. Women human rights defenders are especially vulnerable to these threats. These attacks against human rights defenders are not indiscriminate and sporadic; in fact, they are deliberate and systematic and linked to corrupt political agendas. I know this because I myself am a human rights defender and I was physically tortured by the military because of it.

Sa kabila nito'y patuloy tayong lumalaban sa agos ng pagsasawalang-kibo.

Even in face of the toughest legal, policy and security environments, we find, as we always have found, not only the right reasons to push on with the struggle but heartfelt reminders of the rationale for our existence. Thus, we all hearken to the words of the great human rights defender, Jose W. Diokno –We will struggle on,

No matter how long it takes…
Until we establish a just community
Of free men and women in our land,
Dancing together, working and striving together,
Singing and dancing together,
Laughing and loving together.

Human rights defenders come from various streams. All of them, however, defend human rights for all, everywhere and in a wide variety of contexts. They collect and disseminate information on violations, support the victims of these violations, and act to secure accountability and to end impunity. They support better governance and government policy, and contribute to the implementation of human rights treaties. They also educate and train others on human rights.

The dignity inherent in this line of work, if we can call it as such, germinates from the undeniable link between the role of a human rights defender and the process and outcomes associated with human rights standards and principles. In other words, defending human rights is never a standalone goal, but a means to foster a life of dignity for all. Thus, we are all builders of a great fortress and from the rights-based discharge of our respective responsibilities come the bricks by which we build it.

Thus, the Commission on Human Rights is seriously internalizing human rights standards and principles and leveling it up through solidarity work with local, national and international partners from the government, civil society and international organizations. An essential part of our Roadmap is the need for bolder, more daring and more effectively formative collaboration with human right defenders. In regard to programs and related policies, the Commission has made it a point to anchor operational activities on the situation of human rights defenders.

First, we are finalizing the guidelines on civil society deputation. From the original plan of limiting the deputation mandate to visitation of jails and detention places, we are moving towards a more comprehensive approach that would ideally traverse all our core Constitutional and statutory mandates. Deputation has the immense effect of widening claim-holder access to just, speedy and responsive remedies. In a similar vein, deputation would serve as a strong universal platform for human rightsbased CHR initiatives across the different regions.

Second, we will be working to transform the existing NGO, CSO, and Media Cooperation Office (NCSMCO) into a Human Rights Defenders and Media Cooperation Office in recognition of the central and indispensable role of human rights defenders as foot soldiers and builders of a strong national human rights consciousness. In the particular case of the media, their recognition as bearers of unsullied and objective information carries with it the duty to disseminate the tried and tested principles behind human rights and its defense. This would not only lead to an exponential increase of public awareness but to a qualitative improvement as well, in the contours of public discourse on human rights due to a heightened sense of purpose and affinity with other human rights defenders.

Third, we are re-engineering our regional infrastructure to attune our front-liners with the work of their fellow human rights defenders. Initially, this requires significant investments to work an attitudinal shift from bureaucratic norms to progressive modalities. We aim to leverage this in order to build relationships of trust and sharing, where other human rights defenders serve as mentors to our own workforce of human right defenders, by sharing their expertise, wisdom and passion in HR and in community work.

Fourth, we seek to highlight the need to address the significant disadvantage experienced by women human rights defenders and other defenders working on gender and women's rights issues. As found by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekkagya, governments, national human rights institutions and civil society groups are seized of the responsibility to institute sound legal, policy and administrative frameworks to document, prosecute and sanction violations committed in this context. As Gender Ombud under the Magna Carta of Women, the Commission on Human Rights shall consider the situation of women and women's rights defenders in its internal and external programming.

Challenges and threats, however, are ahead of our way as we push the envelope. The vicious cycle of poverty and conflict remains, leading to the persistence of heavily militarized territories where impunity and fear reign. Political warlordism remains highly embedded in our local polities which also spillover to the partisanship of our security sector. In the governance arena, weak or absent access to information mechanisms among government structures impedes efforts for deeper engagement of human rights defenders with state actors.

This as the domestic human rights framework continues to reinforce international standards. Of particular relevance to the situation of human rights defenders is the passage of the anti-torture law, which enhances their protective mantle against arbitrary, evasive and hostile acts on the part of law enforcement officials. The impending ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court points to another significant restructuring of the legal-policy environment pertaining to the work of human rights defenders, by reinforcing the principles of accountability and non-discrimination. The security sector has also taken bolder steps towards institutionalizing HR principles and approaches. The new Armed Forces paradigm, Oplan Bayanihan, on internal peace and security is theoretically anchored on human rights and development, consonant with the administration's avowed policy of mainstreaming human rights in national planning. It has established a Human Rights Affairs Office with enhanced powers, and supported by a network of human rights officers down to the battalion level. Quite interestingly, even the feared Intelligence Service (ISAFP) has been able to develop a manual on human rights-based intelligence operations, an apparent oxymoron, from past and current experience. But hope springs eternal.

The biggest test for the Armed Forces in the coming months, is its ability to use utilize these reforms to achieve concrete gains – the eradication of secret detention facilities, total rejection of dehumanizing training and indoctrination practices, and a just closure to the cases of human rights defenders Jonas Burgos, James Balao and many others disappeared, killed or maimed in the course of fighting the insurgency.

Not to be outdone, the Philippine National Police (PNP), has come up with a revised human rights policing manual and procedures. It has even anchored its entire professionalization program on this manual. With the help of all 1800 human rights officers nationwide, the level of human rights abuses in the context of law enforcement would be sharply reduced, it is argued.

Yesterday over breakfast, Rosslyn Noonan, Chief Commissioner of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and a seasoned human rights defender herself made an interesting remark which I would like to share with you. Comparing the opportunities available to contemporary women and those available to their mothers and grandmothers, Rosslyn was emphatic in expressing her gratitude for the grace of living in a world and time where the promise of human rights is more and more within our grasp. I share that view, in the sense that with the advent of a new administration, human dignity is being made to move front and center in the national peace and development agenda.

Seven months into my stint as Chairperson of the Commission, I am more convinced than ever that human rights is a universal concern. It transcends ideologies, shatters long-held assumptions and trump all other cards on the table. It is, at the same time, a common cause incapable of being realized at the hands of only one person or office. Only when we realize that each one of us has a responsibility to bear in order to ensure that other people's rights are fulfilled, are our eyes opened to the greater picture– that each of these rights we consider fundamental we hold in trust for and behalf of present and future generations. Thus the greatest measure by which we can all be judged is our willingness to stand in defense of society's least advantaged ones.

I hope you bear this mind as you begin this conference, and look forward to your discussions.

Maraming salamat po at mabuhay tayong lahat - ang mga tagapagtanggol sa karapatang panta!