THE last time I heard or saw chairman Chito Gascon of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), he was featured in an unusually contorted photo on the front page of the Philippine Star. He looked contorted or befuddled, it seems, because the International Criminal Court (ICC) had not yet contacted him or the CHR about the case of human rights abuses filed against President Rodrigo Duterte and 11 other officials by the Filipino lawyer of Edgar Matobato. If he was asked, Gascon said, the commission would be ready to give testimony before the court.
Give testimony? Is it the function of the CHR to testify against our government or top government officials? Is it also its function to provide information to the foreign media and international human rights groups so they will look good in their criticism of our government?
Cayetano calls the shots
Yesterday, in Geneva, Switzerland, our government, represented by a 16-member delegation, presented a report on the human rights situation in the country at the universal period review (UPR) of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The UPR, conducted every four years, was last participated in by the country in 2012.
Because of the prominence of the human rights issue over the past 10 months, I thought that this year’s review was logically a good time for the CHR to show itself and prove that it is alive and has not fallen victim to human rights violence.
But when the delegation was unfurled, the commission was nowhere in the list.
Heading the delegation was defeated vice-presidential candidate and still senator Alan Peter Cayetano, whom the media do not normally associate with human rights concerns and issues.
Human rights junket
It was probably Cayetano’s doing that the huge delegation consisted of representatives of the following 13 agencies: Presidential Human Rights Committee; Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives; Department of Foreign Affairs; Department of Justice; Department of Interior and Local Government; Department of Labor and Employment; Presidential Communications Office; Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency; Philippine National Police; Department of Social Welfare and Development; National Economic and Development Authority; Armed Forces of the Philippines; and National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
Until now, nobody in the media had heard of a Presidential Human Rights Committee, or who the members of the committee were.
On the other hand, all media are aware of the human rights commission, though probably more out of frustration than regard.
I thought at first that its omission from the Geneva review must have been an oversight. But when I saw that Senator Cayetano would head the delegation, and that he would be making the Philippine presentation at the review, I thought it likely that he would elbow out the CHR from the junket.
The advance publicity told it all. Cayetano would “showcase” the human rights situation in the country.
“We’re not here to defend our human rights record…We’re here to showcase how we’re dealing with human rights, and what is new,” he told the Filipino community in Geneva.
For the review, Cayetano said his report would cover five years of the administration of former President Benigno S.C Aquino 3rd, and 10 months of the administration of President Duterte.
According to Cayetano, the tally of killings in the country is “well within the average” of the past five years of the Aquino administration, citing statistics of 11,000 to 16,000 yearly.
“Every year, from 11,000 to 16,000. In 2013, the highest was 16,000. The lowest in 2012,” he said, adding that such numbers have not been reported enough to the public.
He also said that in the 10 months of the Duterte administration, more than 10,000 official operations had been carried out.
How credible Cayetano will be with this showcase is open to question. Note that he is talking about killings year by year. He is not talking of human rights abuses. How many of the killings were extra-judicial killings (EJKs)?
CHR knows nothing
I think the situation is confusing because the Commission on Human Rights does not provide real service to the nation.
I first wondered about the commission during the months of fruitless inquiry by the Senate into the EJKs in the drug war and the Davao Death Squad (DDS).
The commission, if it were really doing its job, should have been able to answer the question whether the DDS did exist. It could have provided a confident answer to the question whether human rights were violated in the city, or how the Davao practice was expanded to the national level in President Duterte’s war on drugs. It should by now be able to speak with authority about the reality or falsehood of EJKs in the drug war.
The CHR has acted as if it were a constitutional commission, comparable to the Commission on the Civil Service, the Commission on Audit, and the Commission on Elections.
But it is not. The pertinent constitutional provision reads:
Sec.17 (1) There is hereby created an independent office called the Commission on Human Rights.
(3) Until this commission is constituted, the existing presidential committee on human rights shall continue to exercise its present functions and powers.
The commission is composed of a chairperson and four members. The Constitution requires that a majority of the commission’s members must be lawyers. But the current chairman, Chito Gascon, appointed by President Aquino, is not a lawyer.
The Supreme Court, in Cariño v. Commission on Human Rights, 204 SCRA 483 (1991), declared that the commission does not possess the power of adjudication, and emphasized that its functions were primarily investigatory. The commission can resolve conflicts through mediation and conciliation.
Office; Philippine DrugLeila de Lima was chairman of the CHR, during the Arroyo presidency, the CHR tried to investigate the alleged DDS killings in Davao City. The commission retreated from the challenge in fear of the government of then Mayor Duterte.
Through all these years, the commission did not establish with certainty that there was or is a Davao Death Squad, or that there were extra-judicial killings in Davao City.
When asked about this at the Senate hearing yesterday, the CHR commissioner present could only testify to the commission’s inutility and powerlessness.
It’s high time that the Congress launched an inquiry into whether the PCHR is fulfilling its mandate under the enabling law, and whether it deserves to keep its budget.
If it‘s true that part of its function is to testify against our government, that surely is ground for the dissolution of the commission. With its existence on the line, maybe the CHR will be able to find its voice.