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The Budget Cut for the Commission on Human Rights: What is at Risk

Words by: Paul Uy

Traditional Politics the CHR Edition

Game over is the first thing that comes to mind. This is it, the government is no longer trying to hide their efforts to bring back Marcos’s “Glory Days”. Tomorrow they’re going to knock on my door to tell me that they have an arrest warrant with my name on it for speaking my mind in a manner that defies the current administration. I was afraid and angry that these people we have placed in power are ready to turn on us again. This is what a number of Filipinos felt without proper context. We’ve all heard of the unprecedented 1,000 peso budget proposed by the House of Reps. for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and two other government institutions for 2018. We all reacted in unison, be it outrage or sheer shock it was effective in acquiring immediate national and international attention, making it the talk of the town wherever one went. I initially thought of it as a joke. But then again, the current administration makes it hard to distinguish jokes from reality. This shows how our elected legislators are bold enough to make an attempt to abolish a commission that supposedly protects the people without so much as an effort to hide it. The CHR and the administration’s war on drugs maintain a relationship similar to that of a reckless husband and a nagging wife. But how far is Duterte willing to go to get what he wants?

It’s easy to assume this issue as another in a long line of political moves that brings us closer to the declaration of Martial Law. It’s a remote possibility because it disables a prominent human rights institution, but in reality, it’s about something much simpler. I was admittedly swept by this wave of ranting that has taken Filipino social media by storm. I joined the chorus of outrage against the pro-EJK administration. However, I don’t necessarily regret that perception of the issue because it was a natural uninformed reaction. The issue was put into perspective through an interview with Miss Vida Joson Gruet, a full-time faculty member of the UA&P’s School of law and Governance, who inspired most if not all of the ideas in this article. This gave me a new take on the issue. She revealed a pattern that she observed which clarifies what she thought the issue is truly about. Was it really a matter of losing our human rights to the political whims of our legislators? Or was it as simple as the culmination of Chito Gascon’s numerous head-butting incidents with Duterte’s administration and the war on drugs? In this article, one will come to see that the entire issue of this outrageous CHR budget boils down to another attempt to oust a member of the government who has proved to be a gigantic inconvenience to the administration’s motives. It’s all just another pattern of traditional politics!

What is the Commission on Human Rights? What is its legal basis?

Before we get into the heart of the budget cut issue, I believe it has become necessary to clarify the function and nature of the Commission on Human rights. The CHR is an independent investigative body that was created in the 1987 constitution under an executive order issued by President Cory Aquino in her revolutionary government, which effectively rendered it as a republic act. This means that it cannot simply be abolished except through a revision of the constitution. The CHR can file cases on behalf of victims but it is not a court of law and it does not possess police power. It is an investigative body focused on the preservation of human rights. It is also important to point out the error in equating the abolishment of the CHR to the forfeiting of our human rights. There is not meant to be one single institution charged with the responsibility of protecting human rights because that is the responsibility of the state itself. There are other bodies or institutions in the government that would keep human rights violations in check such as the ombudsman and the Department of Justice in the absence of the Commission on Human Rights. (For full details of the CHR’s powers and duties see Executive order 163)

The origin of the Commission has been circulating on the internet manifesting itself as Executive order 163-A which states that the commission is to function at the pleasure of the President. If we are to entertain the legitimacy of this provision this means that president Duterte could do away with this “pesky” commission if he wanted to. Which begs the question “Why hasn’t he?” Simply because of the aforementioned idea that the President has no qualms with the commission itself but the commissioner is another story entirely. At the end of the day, the claims of the CHR’s origin being legal fiction does not really have a factual basis which again boils it all down to the conflict of Gascon with the current administration.

State vs. Human Rights? Or Duterte vs. Gascon?

The real narrative of this issue acknowledges that although this insane budget assignment is unprecedented, its political purpose is nothing new. Pantaleon Alvarez, the speaker of the house, proposed that the budget of the CHR would be restored if Chito Gascon simply stepped down. Therefore we ask what is the implication of these conditions presented by the Congress? While understandably, many fear the loss of human rights by the attempts to weaken CHR that is not what is happening. In reality, it is a matter of taking power away from the commissioner who was notably appointed by the president of the last administration. Not to mention the accusations of his partisanship to the beliefs of the liberal party. In effect, the whole nation has its eyes glued on Gascon’s next move. It became a question of his willingness to step down for the sake of his commission and what it represents. Essentially, they turned the tables on the Commissioner and put him in a precarious situation. He must choose between his career and the survival of the CHR. Despite all this, we cannot make the mistake of labeling this entire conflict as one between the state and our human rights, because the president is not the state and Chito Gascon does not embody our human rights.

Given the perspective that the whole budget cut issue should actually focus on the conflict between the president and the commissioner of the CHR, let us review the points given by the Duterte administrations for their actions. There are two main reasons why the majority of Congress saw it fit to sanction CHR with immobility due to lack of funds. First, they claim that the CHR is a commission that has been underperforming in the last few years and has been lacking in output. Secondly, many claim that the CHR is very partisan and selective in its investigation of human rights violations due to the affiliation of Chito Gascon with the liberal party. To address the first accusation, one must simply ask the question, “how can we say that the commission on human rights is underperforming when at the same time those who condemn it also claim that it has been hyper-vigilant of the administration’s war on drugs?” The CHR is meant to expose human rights violations regardless of who is responsible for the act. They cannot be labeled as an underperforming institution if they have been constantly pointing out a death count that has reached more than 7,000 all in negligence of due process. This is a contradiction on the part of the accusers because the role of the CHR is precisely to investigate all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights. Regarding the second reason for the budget cut, many pro-abolishment advocates say that the commission has been very active in criticizing the Duterte administration’s war on drugs despite having remained silent regarding several human rights violations in the past, particularly during the Aquino administration. This point has stronger ground than the former given that the CHR was only vocal about issues such as the Kidapawan massacre when there were more violations that were ignored. However, it is important to acknowledge that the killings that have been occurring in this war on drugs have accumulated an unprecedented number in our history. I understood these claims as a manifestation of how infuriated the current administration is with the CHR’s vigilance towards their war on drugs.

This is one of many angles we could take in analyzing the motives of our legislators with regard to this issue. Although it is important to take note of the arrogance of this administration in the way it deals with public opinion with disregard of democracy. We should always try to put ourselves in the shoes of these traditional politicians in order to have an understanding of the things they do in Congress. So once in a while, I implore you to take a step back from popular opinions, not necessarily for fear of drowning in the mainstream, but for the wonder of exploring the different possibilities that could be the reason for these events.