CROSSING party lines, senators on Wednesday vowed to restore the P678-million proposed budget of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) for 2018, which the House of Representatives reduced to merely P1,000 for its criticisms of rampant killings of drug suspects in the government’s drug war.
The House voted, on second reading, 119-32 to approve the measly 2018 budget for the CHR on Tuesday, a move the commission’s chairman, Jose Luis Manuel Gascon, described as “a whimsical and capricious display of vindictiveness.”
The motion to gut the CHR budget was made by Sagip party-list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta who accused the commission of not doing its job by focusing only on the rights of criminal suspects.
The Senate finance committee approved earlier this week the P678-million budget requested by the CHR as part of the Duterte administration’s proposed P3.767-trillion budget for 2018.
“Being the sponsor who will defend the CHR budget in the Senate, I will do my darn best to restore the P678-million 2018 budget of the agency,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the Liberal Party president, said: “We are committed to oppose such moves by restoring the CHR budget in the Senate even if it means the non-passage of the 2018 budget and the reenactment of the 2017 budget wherein funding for the CHR is assured.”
Other members of the Senate majority also backed the restoration of the CHR budget: Senators Edgardo Angara, Francis Escudero, Sherwin Gatchalian and Juan Miguel Zubiri.
The opposition, composed of Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senators Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes 4th, Paolo Benigno Aquino 4th, Risa Hontiveros and the detained Leila de Lima vowed to support Lacson’s move.
“More than ever, the CHR should be ‘provided with adequate funds’ amidst the killing and reports of human rights violations that are happening in the country the past few months,” Drilon said.
Apart from investigating human rights violations, the CHR performs many other tasks such as serving vulnerable sectors of societies, particularly workers including overseas Filipino workers and their families; persons with disabilities; indigenous peoples; internally displaced persons; senior citizens; persons with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression; women; children; youth; and other marginalized groups.
Angara noted that it was the CHR that discovered the hidden detention cell behind a book shelf in a Manila police precinct in April.
“That act alone justifies more (funds for the CHR),” he said.
“The message and pattern 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.
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, 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. Instead of defunding it, Congress should increase its resources and ensure that it fulfills that mandate,” he added.
Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo said she was “one with Filipinos who were dismayed and alarmed over the P1,000 budget for CHR.”
“The institution of the CHR puts our dignity and rights forward and is an important weapon against abusive regimes,” Robredo said in a statement.
Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat Jr. apologized for his failure to cast his vote to support the CHR during the budget deliberation on Wednesday.
“I deeply apologize to the Filipino people for being unable to cast my vote,” Baguilat said.
He said he was present during the roll call for the deliberations but went bank to his office to attend to his constituents who had travelled all the way from Ifugao province. “I thought that the voting would happen later,” Baguilat said.
De Lima, a former CHR chief, has filed Senate Bill 1230 giving the CHR its own charter to strengthen its powers and functions.
‘He had it coming’
As far as President Duterte is concerned, the CHR can only blame itself for the House’s move.
Gascon, the CHR chief, is “pro-dilaw” (pro-yellow, referring to the party color of the erstwhile ruling Liberal Party) who “opens his mouth in the most inappropriate way” and has angered congressmen, Duterte said Tuesday night.
“[CHR Chairman Gascon] had it coming. You (CHR) do not go in there, in police’s business, send investigators.
They (people in the CHR) should just wait. They don’t even have prosecutorial powers,” Duterte told reporters at the Libingan ng mga Bayani where he visited a soldier’s wake.
Duterte did not name the incident he was referring to, but it was the CHR that discovered in April that the Manila Police District Station in Tondo had a secret cell where 12 people were detained even if no charges were filed against them. The detainees also claimed the police asked them P40,000 to P100,000 each in exchange of their freedom.
“They (CHR) also did it in Marawi, they said they will send investigators. I was really pissed. Son of a bitch. If I see you, I will slap you,” Duterte said.
Duterte, however, clarified that the P1,000 budget for CHR was not cast in stone, and House members could still vote to restore it.
“It’s in the Constitution. Maybe someday, they might review their decision. I’m not here to destroy institutions,” Duterte said.
Albay Rep. Jose Salceda said the CHR outlay, along with that of the Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples which were also cut to P1,000, would likely be restored.
“They will most likely be restored. These are vital institutions,” he told The Manila Times.
Gascon urged to quit
House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez said lawmakers might reconsider the P1,000 budget of the CHR if Gascon resigned.
“I am willing to ask the majority to reconsider the P1,000 budget of CHR if there will be a reorganization,” Suarez said on Wednesday.
“You cannot fire them because it’s a constitutional office. But if he (Gascon) will stay there, we will stand pat…But if he will resign, maybe we would reconsider [the budget],” he said.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said that if the CHR wanted to defend the rights of suspects, it should get its budget from criminals and not the government.
with LLANESCA T. PANTI, LEANDER C. DOMINGO, RHAYDZ B. BARCIA AND REINA C. TOLENTINO