A PERCEPTIVE online reader chided me for not clarifying what’s wrong with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and what are the precise mistakes of CHR chairman Jose Luis Gascon that led me to call for his sacking (“Faeldon and Gascon should be sacked or carried out of office,” The Manila Times, August 3, 2017).
I acknowledge the omission, and I will strive now to present my full and unabridged argument. The lapse was the result of placing on Mr. Gascon’s shoulders the responsibility for the questionable creation of the CHR and its persistence in contemporary times in spite of a lack of achievements. The CHR does not justify its budget and staff of 600 with substantial work and achievements.
I think the CHR’s most significant achievement is making journalists like me cautious about levelling tough criticism against the commission and its chairman, Jose Luis Gascon, lest our commentary or reportage is interpreted to mean that we have enrolled among the legions of warriors and apologists for President Duterte. We have our work to do, and DU30 can surely take care of himself.
An Orwellian commission
Let’s begin with the murky creation and dubious justification of the human rights commission in our machinery of government.
It makes no sense that our government should create an agency to investigate itself for human rights violations. The CHR can be fittingly called “Orwellian” because of its all-encompassing mandate of investigation and its shadowy creation.
Ironically, George Orwell in the novel 1984 was talking about a totalitarian future wherein the police and military are intrusive in people’s lives. With our CHR, it is the police and military and the government that are intruded on.
The CHR is supposed to be the fulfillment of a wish in the 1987 Constitution—Article XIII, section17:”There is hereby created an independent office called the Commission on Human Rights.”
Like the wish for a prohibition of political dynasties, however, the CHR will not come to be, until it is constituted by an act of Congress. No law for the CHR’s creation has been passed by the legislature.
President Corazon Aquino created the CHR by executive order when she was the head of a revolutionary government after the people power revolt in 1986. Without waiting for a new Congress to convene, she signed Executive Order No.163 on May 5, 1987, creating the Commission on Human Rights and abolishing the Presidential Committee on Human Rights.
The EO might have been commendable had the CHR proceeded to investigate the human rights violations of the Aquino government, like the Mendiola massacre. But no such action was taken throughout the Cory presidency.
At the time of the CHR’s creation, President Cory Aquino had the power to create the commission as the head of the revolutionary government. That power withered away when the 1987 Constitution was ratified on February 2,1987, and when subsequently a new Congress was elected into office in 1987.
At that point, agencies created by executive order lost validity, and consequently required an specific act of Congress in order to continue.
CHR unnecessary and superfluous
Secondly, the human rights commission is unnecessary and superfluous when we view the express provisions of the Constitution on the subject of human rights. This was the key point of the Manila Times in its editorial of July 28, 2017 (“Human rights commission should defend its reason to exist”).
I quote some passages from the editorial:
Our CHR is essentially a superfluity, the product of exaggerated zeal by the Cory-appointed members of the constitutional commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution.
1. In Article II “Declaration of principles and State policies”, Section 14, the Charter provides: “The State values the dignity of every human person and full respect for human rights.”
2. In Article III “Bill of Rights,” the Charter enumerates the specific civil and political rights of the citizen, including security of person and his property, and due process of law. These rights are sacrosanct. They exist without any government grant, and may not be taken away by government, which has a duty to protect them….
With the ironclad protections for human rights contained in the bill of rights, why was it necessary for our Constitution-framers to talk of the creation of a human rights commission?
We are troubled that this provision was authored by individuals who were looking toward future employment by the government.
It is troubling for us to discover that the current chairman of the CHR, Jose Luis Gascon, was originally a member of the constitutional commission.
The editorial slyly suggests that there is a conflict of interest between Gascon as charter-framer and Gascon as CHR chairman. In government ethics, this is deplored as a “revolving door” ethics violation.
CHR on its abolition
On July 29, the CHR issued a statement on the calls for its abolition. The statement read:
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is an independent, non-partisan office established by the Constitution. It shall continue to perform its constitutional mandate to protect and promote the human rights of all people as a ‘watchdog’ institution that should be able to perform its functions independently without any fear or favor. Thus, we reaffirm that we will be able to do so only with the free and unfettered ability to conduct our investigations of cases of human rights violations, including any and all alleged perpetrators whether be state or non-state actors.
We shall continue to ask and secure the cooperation and assistance of government bodies and other authorities as it is a collective obligation of the entire State as principal duty-bearer to respect and fulfill all human rights. To this end, we shall continue to be unafraid in speaking truth to power and in demanding an end to impunity by steadfastly asking for justice and accountability.
This we must do even more fervently in circumstances such as we observe today, where fundamental human rights of the people are being violated at an unprecedented pace and scale. All persons of goodwill must speak out to call for compliance both in spirit and in practice of the due process guaranteed of the Constitution. We must stand up in favor of protecting all those who are weak, vulnerable, oppressed, and persecuted in society.
The CHR—its commissioners and staff—will guard its independence in the performance of its mandate. We have and will always abide by the fundamental precepts enshrined in the Constitution. We shall, at all times, adhere to the rule of law even as we ask all other public officers to also do the same, particularly by respecting the systems of checks and balances and separation of powers, as well as established constitutional reform processes. We hope that a regime of truth, freedom, and justice, anchored upon the dignity of all might ultimately prevail.
Nowhere does the statement address the questions raised about its dubious statutory existence.
Gascon is surreal
If the CHR is Orwellian, Gascon is surreal.
The chairman makes no serious defense of the commission. He just relies on a train of clichés to do the job: “fulfilling our constitutional mandate”; “acting without fear or favor”; “speaking truth to power”; “enshrined in the Constitution”; “independence”; etcetera. No new thought come out of his mouth.
In December 2016, Esquire Philippines featured Gascon on its cover, and called him “the beleaguered champion of human rights”
Champion? Before a magazine that was all set to tell his story and regurgitate his thoughts, the CHR chairman ran away from the very first question of the reporter:
“Mr. Gascon: Where were you when a woman in our barangay was raped by a drug addict?”