THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS OF THE PHILIPPINES
on the Occasion of the 9th National Congress of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates: “Advancing Human Rights Movement: Defending Human Rights Defenders”
SEAMEO Innotech, Quezon City, Philippines, 18 September 2008
LEILA M. DE LIMA
Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines
It is my sincerest pleasure to be able to address such a large aggregation of human rights professionals. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.
Human rights advocacy is such a curious creature. Isn't it strange that in our line of work as human rights advocates, we promote those things that people already have? More accurately, we promote rights that are already innate to human beings. Essentially, we do not give anything new to the individuals or communities that we work with. We do not “give” justice, care, access to wealth, education, food, suffrage, protection or participation. These things are demandable by anyone.
There is no elitism in the work that we do. We create nothing of which people do not have. The problem only lies in the fact that stakeholders are sometimes unaware of the rights they can invoke and the things that they can demand. The problem, too, is in making duty-bearers aware of both the things that they themselves can demand and at the same time must provide. Our work thus is not in giving, but in only making people aware of what they already have and the things that they must do.
Every time that we go out into the field to tirelessly promote human rights, the individuals and communities that we work for are transformed, and they become... like us. When they become aware of their rights, then they themselves become advocates. The notion of human rights spreads like a wild fire in the marginalized communities or vulnerable sectors or oppressed segments of society... and yet the fire had always been inside them.
There can be no elitism in being torchbearers of human rights because everyone outside of this hall has the potential to be a torchbearer. From the broadly stated definition of a human rights advocate in the UN Declaration on human rights defenders, anyone can be a human rights defender. Anyone from our ranks of human rights professionals, to government, to State security forces, to students, private enterprise and even multinational business, anyone can be a human rights defender. It is just a matter of awareness, then of conscious choice.
The framers of the same Declaration admit that the document did not create any new rights. The defense of human rights defenders is already based on rights found in the compilation of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. They were merely re-written to ensure a clear application to human rights defenders. The rights that we, as human rights defenders, can claim under this document are essentially rights that any of the individuals and communities we work with can claim. Again, we are not a cut above the rest, and we are not about being elitist with our roles as human rights defenders.
The Declaration emphasizes the importance of efforts to support and protect human rights defenders in securing the implementation of human rights standards. Protecting and supporting our work as human rights defenders is an intermediate step to the ultimate goal of protecting human rights. This kind of protection and support may be humbling or may make us feel special. However, when taken together with the fact that the defense of human rights practitioners is essentially no different from protecting human rights in general, our work as a critical and recognized intermediate step becomes inseparable from the ultimate goal. We are no different from the people we hope to help; we are no different from the people we hope to educate with human rights awareness. They need to be protected, just as we need to be protected, just as everyone has to be protected.
It has been recognized that the government is ultimately responsible for protecting and promoting human rights. It seems that it is the ultimate duty-bearer. Yet, the importance attached to human rights defenders suggests that when our government fails in its duty, the last line of defense of human rights ultimately falls on us. For decades, in times of prosperity and in times of severe turmoil, human rights defenders have always been at the front lines.
However, since we are no different from the people we serve, and our work is inseparable from the ends we seek, we reach the stark truth of the ultimate goal: A nation's endeavor for complete human rights protection and promotion depends on its people. It depends on the strength of HRDs and civil society, it depends on the strength of our communities, it depends on the strength of a government of laws – ultimately composed of people. It depends on the strength of the Filipino people to be themselves, both the advocate and protector of human rights.
As today's theme propounds to us, how, then, can we best advance the human rights movement and defend human rights defenders? The best protection, the broadest protection is already found in our work: To make human rights advocates out of every life we touch, every marginalized person we fight for - every displaced refugee, every disabled person, every wrongfully detained person, every informal settlers inhumanely evicted, every family whose father, mother or child had gone missing or had been extralegally murdered, every human rights advocate who had been silenced. Our protection comes from within the ranks of all person we convert into a human rights advocate. The insuppressible clamor of a nation's people for the protection of human rights is the protection that we seek. It is in every Filipino protecting his or her fellow Filipino that we can all find security.
The Commission on Human Rights is looked upon in the media as the face of this movement of advancing human rights. However, when I look at all your faces and number of you present today, I can see that the Commission is only a small and humble part of a vibrant human rights community. When we contemplate the possibility of, someday, making human rights advocates out of all the millions of Filipinos, and someday, when all Filipinos will not only be aware of their rights, but will actively promote them as well, and finally, someday, when we as one nation will truly live up to the spirit and essence of our social justice Constitution, then we, the community of human rights defenders, becomes even smaller and we will eventually fade into the crowd. And it is in that crowd, a mass demonstration of human rights advocacy, where there can be no elitism, no distinction between rights-holders and duty-bearers, defender and protected, or benefactor and beneficiary of human rights. While today, we, as a people, are still striving to ignite that fire of human rights in every person, if we stand together and stand with the people that we help, and protect one another, that someday will come.
Maraming salamat at mubuhay ang mga tagapagtanggol ng mga karapatang pantao!