Baguio as bastion of human rights

Baguio as bastion of human rights

/ 05:07 AM May 24, 2024

It’s an initiative that offers protection and legal recourse for rights defenders who are facing harassment such as Red-tagging, which a recent Supreme Court ruling has described as a threat to the life, liberty, and security of its targets.

Baguio City’s proposed Ordinance No. 0026-23, which was filed last year by councilor and Ibaloy lawyer Peter Fianza, among others, would shield activists and government critics from “defamation and stigmatization” and provide them access to “effective remedy and reparation,” while they are in the country’s summer capital.

The draft law is a strong and timely response to Red-tagging—the linking of groups and individuals to the outlawed armed communist movement by state agents—which has led to the arrest, detention, defamation, physical harm, and death of some targeted parties.

Among other provisions, Section 39 of the ordinance addresses “derogatory and unfounded labeling” by requiring Baguio’s city government to remove posters, tarpaulins, and other materials that “promote false, unfounded, and derogatory labeling of human rights defenders.” It also requires law enforcers or public officials guilty of such acts to issue a clarification. Failure to do so will constitute grounds for the filing of appropriate administrative charges, without prejudice to the right of the victim to file a criminal case, the measure states. The proposed ordinance, which has passed its second reading, penalizes offenders with fines ranging from P1,000 to P5,000.


Culture of impunity

If passed, it will be the second local government legislation of its kind in the country, after Ordinance No. 22-717 of Isabela City in Basilan, noted Commission on Human Rights-Cordillera chief Romel Daguimol. But unlike the Isabela ordinance, he added, the Baguio draft measure has “greater teeth” with its penal provisions that compare political vilification and Red-tagging to acts considered as human rights violations and abuse.The welcome move has predictably met resistance from government forces, notably Army Col. Virgilio Noora, who took issue with the ordinance’s definition of human rights violators as state actors or individuals including “military affiliates, paramilitary, police or military assets, or any agent of the state acting on its behalf.”

Why are they being singled out, Noora complained, when civilians could be rights violators, too? For sure, except that when civilians do commit such acts, they are called criminals and can be arrested and haled to court. On the other hand, state agents often take cover behind their official functions and get away with it, even when certain protocols on search warrants and arrests have been violated. It is this general presumption of regularity which usually leads to a prevailing culture of impunity among state actors that the ordinance seeks to curtail.

Dangerous labeling

Noora, an officer of the Army’s 5th Infantry Battalion, also protested that the draft law was “too broad” and could be abused by “criminals” pretending to be activists. Little wonder then that Joint Task Force Baguio, which Noora heads and which conducts peace rallies and anticommunist lectures in Baguio schools, has been accused of spreading disinformation about local activists, including college students.It is to head off such presumptuous and dangerous labeling that the ordinance needs to be passed posthaste. As former police officer and Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, who was himself Red-tagged by the notorious National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, said in support of the measure: “Because of that experience, kailangan pala natin magsalita—kailangan nating mag-ingay (we needed to speak, we needed to make noise).”

The mayor certainly walks his talk. In December last year, Magalong signed City Resolution No. 763 that makes it official policy that no Baguio resident or guest would suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation, gender, or political beliefs and social affiliations. The resolution is part of Baguio City’s initiatives to strengthen civil rights.


‘Window dressing’

The city’s twin initiatives should prompt other local government units to sponsor similar measures, if only to validate the country’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which we are a state party.

Such moves should also give heft and substance to President Marcos’ recent administrative order creating the Presidential Human Rights Committee to “enhance [government] mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines.”Slammed by rights groups as mere “window dressing” to deflect attention from the grave rights abuses in the country, this presidential fiat needs to be translated into concrete measures on the ground to gain credibility and become effective. With Baguio and Isabela, Basilan showing the way, such aspiration seems well within reach.

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TAGS: Baguio, opinion

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