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December 2 , Manila -- The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, yesterday urged governments in Asia to recognize and protect persons working on human rights issues as “essential” to building democracy.

Sekaggya said, “human rights defenders play an indispensable role in the defense of democracy” as she observed that democracy is at a cross roads in many countries in the region, where the military and conservative parties are making a comeback.

Ms Sekaggaya is in Manila in an unofficial capacity to participate in a regional forum of human rights defenders from 2 to 4 December, in which some 100 human rights activists from 16 countries in Asia are participating.

The UN independent expert from Uganda explained that “criticism and dissent are the lifeblood of a healthy democratic society.”

Unfortunately, she said, human rights defenders are often labelled as ‘subversives’ or ‘terrorists’ by governments who often attack or arrest activists working to promote human rights.

Sister Cres Lucero of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines said that human rights defenders continue to be threatened in many countries all over the region, as she asked participants to have a moment of silence to honor defenders who have been arrested, killed or disappeared in the line of work.

A common trend Sekkagya observed in many countries across the globe is that “governments tend to politicize human rights and the work of human rights defenders, instead of recognizing the vital role in a democracy.

Sekkagya further urged governments to pay particular attention to the work of women and minority human rights defenders, saying that “true democracy must be inclusive of minorities and groups at particular risk, especially women.”

“This is the first time we holding the Regional Human Rights Defenders Forum outside Bangkok,” said Yap Swee Seng, of FORUM-ASIA, a regional human rights organization, which organized the conference along with the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines and the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition.

“We recognize the vibrant human rights movement in the Philippines,” Yap said as he explained that organizers wanted to reach out to more human rights defenders “on the ground”.

The three-day regional forum will also discuss topics affecting human rights defenders including graft and corruption, access to information, mining and conflicts over natural resources, defenders working on sexual orientation and gender identity (sogi), the role of women human rights defenders, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities rights, and movement building for human rights defenders.

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