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CHR budget slash stirs public uproar

“HE had it coming.”

This was what President Rodrigo Duterte had to say about Commission on Human Rights chairman Chito Gascon, whose agency was given a budget allocation of only P1,000 for 2018 by the House of Representatives.

Gascon, who the President accused of meddling and making hasty conclusions about his anti-drug war, had only himself to blame for the punitive budget allocation assigned to his agency, Duterte said.

In a 119 to 32 vote on Tuesday, the House reduced the CHR’s budget from P678 million to P1,000.

Also on Wednesday:

* Gascon said he would continue to do his job and said he would not resign, despite pressure from Congress for him to do so.

* Senators crossed party lines and vowed to restore the agency’s proposed budget.

* The move to slash the CHR budget was condemned by the Catholic Church, human rights organizations here and abroad, and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

In remarks Wednesday, the President denied he had a hand in the House decision to slash the CHR budget from P678 million to only P1,000.

“This Gascon, because of his ‘pro-yellow’ bias, opens his mouth in the most inappropriate way,” Duterte said in Filipino, and referring to the opposition Liberal Party, which is known by its use of yellow. “He conducts the business of CHR without knowing anything. Congress is angry at him.”

Duterte attacked Gascon, calling him tonto (stupid) and told him to stop investigating police abuses in the bloody war on drugs.

“If you are not sure of yourself [and] where you stand, you might as well maybe shut up,” the President said.

President Rodrigo Duterte

“What you need to do Gascon, you and the CHR should wait. They cannot just investigate, they don’t have prosecutorial power,” he said. “‘That’s why congressmen are mad at him.”

Contrary to Duterte’s assertions, however, Gascon is a lawyer, having passed the bar in 1996 and entering the roll of attorneys in 1999, after graduating the University of the Philippines College of Law in 1996 and obtaining a masters in International Law from Cambridge University in London.

The CHR, as an independent agency created under the Constitution, is only a fact-finding and recommendatory body but on its own, can also investigate, make recommendations and forward its findings to pertinent government agencies for prosecution, a duty which it has in fact done based on records.

Unlike the Department of Justice, which serves as the government’s prosecution arm and administers the government’s criminal justice system, the CHR can only assist complainants of human rights violations.

Gascon, who denounced the House move as a display of vindictiveness, said he would continue to do his job despite the reduced budget.

He also said the commission was merely performing its mandate based on the 1987 Constitution, regardless of which administration was in power.

Commissioner Leah Armamento said it would be a bad precedent for Gascon to resign, especially after House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said the agency would only get its proposed budget if the current chief steps down.

“[This would set a bad] precedent that we can be bullied and then as an independent body, we will now cater to the whims of a political party,” she said.

“We are not enemies of the government. We are the conscience of the people so we are here to provide limitations to the immense powers of the state.”

The P1,000 budget was an insult, Armamento said.

“Are the human rights of a person worth P1,000 only?” she asked.

Duterte said he was open to reviewing the decision of the House of Representatives.

“Since it is an organ of government, maybe someday we will review their decision,” he said. “We are not here to destroy institutions.”

In the Senate, members of the majority and the minority blocs vowed to restore the CHR budget, even if it means passing a reenacted budget.

If the 2017 budget for CHR is reenacted, the agency would even get a higher budget of P725 million, compared to the proposed 2018 budget, said Senator Francis Pangilinan, Liberal Party president.

He also warned that the “message and pattern of giving a P1,000 budget, is that anyone who is critical of this administration will be bullied and intimidated into submission or face its wrath.”

“It is anti-democratic and authoritarian,” Pangilinan said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said cutting the budget to P1,000 would in effect abolish the CHR, a move that can be challenged constitutionally.

Senator Leila de Lima, detained on drug charges filed by the Duterte administration, said the move to cut the CHR budget was “pathetic.”

“This is once again a clear proof of Duterte’s power hungry, morally bankrupt and crooked governance,” she said.

“To the 119 lapdogs of Duterte who supported the political persecution of CHR as well as the culture of fear and impunity of this government, shame on you,” she said.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, vice chairman of the Senate Finance committee, and member of the majority bloc, promised that the Senate will stand its ground on the CHR budget.

He said the issue here is not about the CHR chairman or any of the commission’s officers and members.

“It is about right and wrong.” said Lacson, who will sponsor the CHR budget in the Senate plenary.

Lacson also questioned why the House version of the 2018 national budget stayed at P3.767 trillion after it reduced the P677.99 million budget to P1,000.

“It’s interesting to find out how the P677 million was chopped,” said Lacson, adding that he is sure the Senate will give the CHR a more generous budget.

He said the CHR is a body tasked to check abuse and uphold fundamental rights.

“When I defended their budget way back in 2014, I asked them to focus too on socioeconomic rights and not solely on civil and political rights. Let’s fight for everyone’s rights not just when they die or are threatened,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto guaranteed the Senate will surely restore the CHR budget, saying that the agency might need more resources given the rising number of extrajudicial deaths.

“The CHR is a constitutional body mandated by the Constitution to protect our human rights. It may even need more resources considering the number of extrajudicial killings,” Recto said in a text message on Wednesday.

Senator Francis Escudero said he will fight to restore CHR’s budget.

“The CHR is a constitutional imperative and a necessity, however inconvenient it may be for some. I will fight to restore its budget,” said Escudero, also a member of the majority.

“It is unacceptable to forever regard the CHR as a toothless tiger if it is a state policy to secure protect and guarantee the dignity of its citizens and to ensure the fulfillment of such citizens’ human rights,” Escudero said.

Senator JV Ejercito expressed support for the CHR, saying it is a necessity as the Constitution mandates it. He said the agency functions as a guardian against abuse by those in authority.

Senator Richard Gordon, a staunch Duterte ally, said he does not agree with the CHR budget cut.

He said CHR is a constitutional body and the Philippines is a signatory to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“They may not agree with the government all the time but that is their role—to exposé possible abuses. And we should embrace that. It also behooves the human rights commission to project a neutral stand in all their statements and appearances.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines called the House decision “stupid and shameful.”

In an interview on church-run Radyo Veritas, Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes said, “This is the most stupid and shameful decision the [House] has ever made ...as it effectively abolishes a constitutional provision that ensures the protection of the basic rights [of the people].”

The move was also widely condemned by human rights groups.

“The move by the Philippine House of Representatives to appropriate a mere P1,000 [about $20] to the Commission on Human Rights for its 2018 budget would deal a blow against accountability for human rights violations in the Philippines,” said Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

“If the Senate concurred with this proposal by the Lower House, Congress would effectively defund the CHR,” said Kine.

Kine said the vote by an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives is part of the Duterte administration’s attempt to prevent independent institutions to check its abuses, particularly in the context of the brutal drug war that has claimed the lives of thousands, including dozens of children.

“While the CHR’s performance as a constitutional body may not have been fully satisfactory to many Filipinos, its mandate is important in combatting human rights abuses,” said Kine.

“Instead of defunding it, Congress should increase its resources and ensure that it fulfills that mandate,” he said.

A group calling itself Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance said the House was cheapening human rights, and said nationalists such as the late Jose Diokno, Lorenzo Tañada and Jovito Salonga must be turning in their graves.

Ending the life of a constitutionally created independent commission is beyond the congressional power of the purse, the group said, and its virtual abolition was patently unconstitutional.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Agnes Callamard slammed the House cation as “reprehensible and unconscionable”.

In a statement, Callamard also warned the Congress that slashing the budget of CHR, which she described as the crucial institution for the Philippines, may damage the country’s society, given the scope of the duty that the agency holds.

She said that cutting the CHR budget to a measly P1,000 would render it incapable of delivering its mandate, particularly at a time when the Philippines is currently confronted with allegations of massive human rights violations in Duterte’s bloody war against drugs.

Callamard said the Filipinos deserved a strong independent human rights institution that can monitor, investigate, and report on human rights violations, protect victims and their families, and hold the powerful to account for their abuses of international human rights standards.

A political analyst warned that the partisan handling of the human rights question will weaken the country’s democracy.

“The majority in the House of Representatives, in its decision to limit the CHR budget to P1,000, tests the constitutional limits and undermines the post-Marcos democracy by which, ironically, they were elected into office. In so doing, it courts public resistance,” Casiple said.

“Partisan handling of the human rights question is the surest way to court extra-constitutional challenges, weaken—if not destroy—Philippine democracy, and to be regarded as a rogue state,” he said. “The majority in the House of Representatives are not the majority of the Filipino people.”

Casiple said other constitutional institutions, particularly the Senate, the Office of the President, and the Supreme Court, “are duty-bound to defend the CHR as a constitutional body and enable it to undertake its human rights mandate.”

He added that the country has obligations that it needs to uphold human rights, “as contained in the numerous international treaties, conventions, and agreements we signed as a responsible member of the UN and the international community.”

Topics: President Rodrigo Duterte , Commission on Human Rights , Chito Gascon , House of Representatives , Anti-drug war , Liberal Party
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