Let us not throw the human rights baby out with the bath water

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

IT is easy to be carried away by the passionate intensity of partisanship to call for the abolition of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) just because of the perception that it has not done its job, or that it has become a partisan tool of the political opposition.

In fact, the House of Representatives has already made a move against CHR when it appropriated a measly P1,000 for its 2018 budget.

But as the old adage says, we should not be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

One has to realize that the CHR is a creation of the 1987 Constitution. Article XIII, Section 17, Number 1 of the Constitution stipulates that “there is hereby created an independent office called the Commission on Human Rights.” Using her residual legislative powers, President Corazon Aquino in 1987issued Executive Order 163 which created the CHR. Section 3 of the EO reiterated Article XIII, Section 18 of the Constitution which enumerated the functions of the CHR. First on the enumeration is a broad definition of its mandate, which is to “investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights.”

Thus, it is clear from this that the CHR’s mandate is to address all forms of human rights violations, regardless of whether the perpetrator is a state actor or a non-state or private entity.

The allegation that the CHR has been remiss in fulfilling this duty stems from the perception that it has focused much of its attention on human rights violations committed by state actors. And here, there is even an indication that the CHR may have a partisan agenda, owing to the fact that its current chairman, Chito Gascon, who I would like to disclose is a friend, is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party. It did not help that much of the publicized activities of CHR were focused on alleged drug-related state-sponsored executions, with Chito making statements in local and foreign venues critical of the President’s war on drugs.

And as cited by my friend Jojo Robles in his column in another newspaper, it certainly did not bode well for the CHR’s optics that it was silent on the case of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s incarceration which a UN body had considered as a violation of her rights. Jojo also points to the case of the Kidapawan massacre during the presidency of Noynoy Aquino where the CHR somewhat glossed over the fact that the PNP fired first at the demonstrating farmers. He also cited the recent case in which the CHR did not issue any statement on the violation of the rights of the so-called Ilocos 6 who were detained by the House of Representatives. Many speculated that may have been because the personalities involved were allied with the Marcoses.

To be fair, it is not entirely true that the CHR is acting only on the violations of state actors. In July 2016, it initiated a potential landmark legal case against 47 private companies that are allegedly committing activities that led to adverse greenhouse gas emissions that undermined people’s fundamental rights to life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self-determination. It was also involved in the investigation of the violation of a child’s right when he was asked to perform a lewd dance in a TV show in 2011.

However, the CHR is also fanning the misunderstanding of its mandate by the larger public when it allowed the circulation of an infographic that suggests that it could not act when the perpetrators are non-state actors.

What complicates the matter are jurisdictional challenges on the power of the CHR in relation to other investigating bodies. For example, when the CHR called the attention of the 47 carbon emitters, their jurisdiction was questioned. Even the CHR is not sure if it has subpoena powers, considering that its hearings are fact-finding and not adversarial in character.

It is clear that much has to be done to amend the law which created the CHR. This is needed not only to clarify the CHR’s niche in the universe of investigating agencies, but also to rationalize its functions and structures to enable it to become truly a well-equipped and capable impartial human rights watchdog. For one, a provision barring anyone who has a history of partisan activity from becoming a commissioner might be in order in the face of allegations that the CHR has been used as a partisan tool.

Many argue that there is no longer a need to have a CHR, but on this I beg to disagree. Most of the victims of human rights abuses do not have the resources to bring their grievances to the authorities. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) acts only on technical violations, but not on environmentall-related human rights abuses. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) is more of a developmental and quasi-regulatory body. It is these gaps that entities like the CHR, as a human rights watchdog, can fill.

At present, the toxicity in the CHR issue largely stems from a Congress that is hostile to Chito Gascon. I know Chito to be a good man, but his continuation as CHR chair may no longer be, on the balance, good for the interest of the organization. If in exchange for his resignation Congress can promise that it will amend the law that created the CHR to enable it to be a better human rights watchdog, then Chito will serve human rights advocacy best if he yields.

After all, there is more to human rights advocacy than the CHR. As a private person, he may even be liberated from the shackles of legislative optics and theatrics, and perform better where he is most needed in a democracy, as a loyal member of the political opposition and a civil society enabler.

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