LEA Salonga is known as a world class singer and stage actress. She has done the Philippines proud, having won the coveted Tony Award, Broadway's answer to Hollywood's Oscar.

That she is a great singer and stage actor, none can doubt. But a human rights defender? Even Lea would probably balk, probably even horrified, at the notion. Many people equate human rights as radical chic that is so passé, so 1980s. They see human rights defenders as grim and determined activists who are out to do battle the government over extra-judicial killings, desapericidos or torture of dissidents.

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But there is more to human rights defense than meets the eye. Or misperception as the case may be.

Human rights defense, as the UN describes the concept, is to address human rights on behalf of individuals or groups. Defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

Persons need not label themselves "human rights activists" or to work for an organization that includes "human rights" in its name to become a human rights defender. Many of the staff of the United Nations serve as human rights defenders even if their day-to-day work is described in different terms, for example as "sustainable development."

Defenders address any human rights concerns that range from summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, female genital mutilation, discrimination, employment issues, access to health care, deforestation and its impact on climate change, and forced evictions.

They actively support human rights as diverse as the rights to life, to food and water, to the highest attainable standard of health, to adequate housing.

In Bacolod, thousands of informal settlers stand to lose shanties they call home when landowners reclaim their rights to their land. The city is seeing a spate of demolition of these informal communities. The law requires the settlers to be relocated. Unfortunately, the transfers don't necessarily translate to adequate housing.

Thus, human rights defense could mean enabling informal settlers to attain their right to adequate housing. And that is exactly what Lea aimed to do in Negros. She recently honored the Negrenses with a concert at the University of St. La Salle Coliseum to raise funds to build more Gawad Kalinga homes for the poor in Negros.

She didn't have to rant or rail against the military or the "US-Arroyo regime." All Lea did to defend human rights was to croon a wide array of songs requested by fans, and aptly capped her concert with her version of "Bayan Ko." She showed the Negrenses what nationalist chic could be.

She partnered with fellow human rights defender Tony Meloto, GK founder, who would probably disavow being tagged a human rights defender. Meloto, however, vowed to continue GK's mission to bring homes to the homeless in Negros, which in essence means human rights defense.

Together, they showed the Negrenses and the Filipinos that human rights defense need not be a zero-sum struggle between the haves and the have-nots. They proved that defending the poor doesn't mean disenfranchising the rich, or resorting to class war as some so-called human rights organizations propose. They can both work together in translating the dream of a better Philippines to reality.

In that sense, I would classify Lea and Meloto as human rights and peace heroes for helping resolve land ownership conflicts.

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