The year 2020 is unlike any other, as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic brought nations down to its knees and the community quarantines required Filipinos to stay indoors in order to curb its transmission.

Throughout all these ordeals, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) remained on its toes and kept a lookout against human rights violations. Concerned about women and children being stuck at home with their abusers, as well as sexual exploitation of children on the rise, the CHR broughts its services online.

CHR Spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia said that they promoted the CHR Webinar Series called “Human rights in the time of Covid-19” in order to “educate the public and stakeholders on human rights principles and the importance of a human rights-based approach in ensuring the rights of the vulnerable sectors in this period of pandemic.”

The CHR also placed the spotlight on the plights faced by other vulnerable sectors of society, such as persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), older persons, informal workers, farmers, front liners, lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) community, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities (PWDs).

To effectively help them, the CHR likewise launched the Human Rights E-Lawyering Service (“HR-ELS”). The HR-ELS will provide real-time legal advice to citizens on their rights through the use of smart technology. People will be given immediate legal aid, legal education, and policy recommendations.

“All in all, the institution was very conscious to continue to make itself relevant by responding to the call of the times,” de Guia told the Manila Bulletin. “We have maximized technology and continued to explore its potentials in our continuing call for the government to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights obligations even in a time of national health emergency.”

International findings

Back in June, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, made a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. Sadly, it highlighted the widespread human rights violations in the country, which included the systematic killing of thousands of drug suspects and the threats and harassment against people who engage in human rights advocacy and activism.

The UN report stated that the country’s war against illegal drugs, which started back in 2016, has claimed the lives of at least 8,663 individuals. Other estimates have pegged that the actual number is actually three times the reported number.

The UN Human Rights Office also documented at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists who have been killed from 2015 to 2019. Out of all these killings, there has only one conviction for the death of a drug suspect in a police operation since 2016.

For its part, the CHR issued a statement, asking the government to acknowledge the findings and act on it.

“CHR hopes that the government heeds expediently to this repeated call with concrete steps that would ascertain accountability and justice while also implementing definitive actions to prevent any further attacks and loss of life,” said de Guia.

The CHR did the same thing when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a report on December that revealed the many human rights violations in the country’s campaign against illegal drugs.

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s report stated that murder, torture, and other crimes against humanity were present during the first three years of President Duterte’s incumbency.

“As the country’s national human rights institution, CHR urges the government to acknowledge and address the observations of the ICC, with regards to its findings, and calls for greater transparency and accountability from the government in the movement towards providing redress for cases of human rights violations,” the CHR statement read.

“In the end, it is the duty of the state to ensure a healthy balance between liberty and authority and general adherence to the rule of law,” it added.

In light of the findings of the ICC, the CHR said that the government must be spurred to “squarely address” all violations committed in the name of the campaign against illegal drugs.

Red-tagging concerns

The issue of red-tagging is also a huge concern of the CHR, and it has noted reports of red-tagging involving the Union of Journalists of the Philippines, a student organisation in the UP College of Mass Communication; the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, a consolidation of individuals, institutions, and organisations across the country for the protection and promotion of human rights; Rowena Carranza-Paraan, former chairperson of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines; Windel Bolinget, the harassment experienced by his family because of such allegations, including the Cordillera Peoples Alliance and its network of organizations and institutions; and several other groups and individuals in local communities in the country.

Even actress Liza Soberano and 2018 Miss Universe Catriona Gray were warned by Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr. to be careful of their support to the women’s group Gabriela.

Parlade warned Soberano that she might suffer from the same fate as activist Josephine “Jo” Lapira, the 22-year-old UP Manila student who was killed in a clash between members of the New People’s Army and government troops in Batangas back in 2017, if she continues her ties with Gabriela.

“Liza Soberano, there’ s still a chance to abdicate that group. If you don’t, you will suffer the same fate as Josephine Anne Lapira,” he said.

“The choice is yours, Liza. And so with you, Catriona,” he added.

Parlade denied red-tagging Soberano and Gray and refused to apologize despite public uproar, but CHR Commissioner Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana said that his remarks are “tantamount to harassment and red-tagging.”

“Coming from a high-ranking military official, such statement is a form of suppression and restriction that serves to dissuade those who speak up for their beliefs and advocacies,” she said.

The CHR has consistently urged the government to denounce the practice of red-tagging activists and labelling them as terrorists, because these make them susceptible to attacks and threats. As a result, their lives and security are often put at risk.

“Human rights advocacy aims for the common good by reminding the government of their duty to fulfill their sworn obligation to the country,” de Guia said. “Human rights defenders should not be painted as destabilizers for calling for the protection and promotion of the rights of all especially the vulnerable sectors.”

Rights activist Zara Alvarez was also a victim of red-tagging and was once part of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) 2018 list of more than 600 people that are tagged as terrorists. Her name was eventually taken off the list; however, the damage has already been done as Alvarez was shot in the back by unidentified gunmen along Sta. Maria Street in Eroreco, Brgy. Mandalagan in Bacolod City on August 17.

Looking ahead

Despite all of the bad things that has happened this year, the CHR is looking forward to a brighter 2021. The COVID-19 health crisis reminded Filipinos of their “shared fragility and vulnerabilities,” but it also highlighted their connection with one another.

“We see that eradicating the pandemic in one community will never be achieved unless it is done in all communities; that the success and safety of our frontline workers are linked to our willingness to stay home; and that the efforts of the government, civil society, and individual citizens must be all guided by a shared commitment to put forward the human rights and dignity of everyone in coping with the health crisis,” said de Guia.

The CHR vowed to always stand with the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged members of society – no matter how rough things might get. And as its Christmas wish, de Guia said the CHR family only has one: “As a Christmas wish, we call on our elected and appointed officials to be more circumspect and respectful of their sworn responsibility of protecting and promoting the rights and dignity of every Filipinos.”

Source: Manila Bulletin (