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House of Representatives Approves Human Rights Defenders Bill

Balay hailed the passage of the  bill that grants a total of 17 rights and fundamental freedoms to human rights defenders during the plenary session of the House of Representatives on June 3. The bill got the unanimous approval  of 183 lawmakers on the final reading.

Known as House Bill No. 9199 or the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, the measure has defined who is a  human rights defender and accorded durable legal protection to those who defend the right of others and those who exercise their own fundamental freedoms as well.   

A total of  134 human rights defenders have been killed in the last three years,  according to Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal sponsor of the bill. To prevent this kind of situation, he said, the bill obliges the government to "take all the necessary measures" to ensure that all its laws, policies, and programs "are consistent with the rights" listed under the bill and required that the state protect the rights and fundamental freedoms granted to human rights defenders. 

The House bill prohibits the vilification of human rights activists and advocates and imposes sanctions to fight impunity. It provides, among others, that “No person shall be subjected, individually or in association with others, to any form of intimidation or reprisal on the grounds of or in relation to one's status, activities, or work as a human rights defender.” It  establishes a sanctuary for human rights victims and their families as well.

If it becomes law, the bill will create a Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee chaired by a Commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights. It will also have six members who will be jointly nominated by concerned civil society organizations.

According to Balay, the passage of House Bill No. 9199 is a recognition of the legitimacy of the work being done by human rights defenders as it also gives value to their sacrifices in exercising their active citizenship to keep democracy alive in the Philippines. It cited as example the efforts of  human rights defenders to block the passage of the bills that seek to reinstate the death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal liability of children to nine years old bill. Both measures have not made huge progress at the time that the Senate went on sine die (indefinite) adjournment on June 7, Friday.

The approval of the bill came a day before the 17th Congress adjourned on June 4, three years after it opened on July 25, 2016. However, it still needs the approval of the Senate and the subsequent signature of President Duterte before it could become fully enacted into law. The Senate version of the bill has been pending at the committee level since February 2018. The efforts to  enact the human rights defenders bill has been an uphill struggle  in the legislative branch since the 14th Congress.

Balay hopes that the bill will finally become a law in the 18th Congress. It said that the approval that the human rights defender’s bill has gained from the House of Representatives has provided inspiration for civil society organizations to continue to help shape public policies that are consistent with the human rights and social justice provisions of the Constitution.