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US$20 annual budget to CHR a shameful decision

  • Philippines' Commission on Human Rights gets only P1,000 (US$20) in annual budget, down sharply from the P678 million originally proposed.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Earlier last week, Philippines House of Representatives took a drastic step by slashing the 2018 annual budget of three commissions, including the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to only P1,000 or equivalent to US$20 from the P678 million it was originally proposed.

Although the P1,000 budget is not yet final, as it will still go to the Senate for deliberation, but what took place in the House of Representatives was a major blow against human rights in the Philippines. Such action has also triggered outrages locally and internationally.

119 out of 151 lower house members presented in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the dramatically cutting of the CHR’s budget to only P1, 000, which could render the CHR defunct in 2018. Only 32 lawmakers voted against the measures.

In the Southeast Asia region at least, the Philippines in the past is always seen as one of the key champions when it comes to the discourse on democracy and human rights. However, Rodrigo Duterte’s administration a year ago has reversed the trend and his war on drugs policy that witnessed thousands being killed has come into harsh critics around the world among the human rights organisations including the CHR.

This is not the first threat on the existence of the CHR since Duterte is elected. In last July, Duterte has threatened to abolish the CHR, although he waved it off as a joke later on. Duterte also openly criticized the CHR’s Chair Chito Gascon on his leadership in the commission, for politicizing the commission instead of addressing the important issues that the country is facing.

This latest move is seen as a crackdown on checks and balances in Duterte’s administration. Since Duterte is elected as the president, the human rights condition in the Philippines have been deteriorating mainly due to his war on drugs policy that lead to the rampant extra-judicial killings.

The 1987 Constitution, which created the CHR, provides that among the CHR's functions is to "investigate… all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights", among others. As the extra-judicial killings becoming uncontrollable, the CHR has launched investigations into the war on drugs, and thrown its support behind rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

It was said that the move by the House of Representatives is a form of retaliation due to the CHR’s criticism of Duterte’s administration on war on drugs, and its efforts to investigate the killings that has claimed the lives of innocent including children.

One of the questions that were continuously raised is about the mandate of the CHR. Established in 1987 following the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the CHR similarly as other national human rights institutions (NHRIs) around the world already faces considerable challenges to its mandate. In Thailand for example, its human rights commission is currently facing the similar fate where the new proposed bill could potentially weaken the mandate of the commission.

In its official statement dated 12 September 2017, the CHR expressed its regret that the lower house has opted to undermine their role as a check-and-balance mechanism of the government by drastically cutting down their budget to only P1,000. I quote, "We regret that despite continued clarifications on our mandate, they have wrongly perceived our role as combative rather than a collaborative effort to bolster Philippine democracy by ensuring that all public officials are honest in the performance of their duties and adhere to universally accepted principles of human rights."

The position of NHRIs like the CHR is often a peculiar one. Although the CHR is established by the government, but at the same time, they are the "watchdog" on the government. As a NHRI, the CHR has a duty to perform as mandated by the Constitution. Moreover, with so much human rights violations going on in the country given the crimes and the rampant extrajudicial killings in the country, logically the CHR needs more resources than budget cut to these investigations.

As the oldest NHRI in the Southeast Asia region, while the CHR’s performance record may not have been fully satisfactory to many Filipinos, the 30-year old CHR has proven in many instances to be a useful institution and has been making immense contribution to not only the promotion but also protection of human rights not only in the country but also regionally and internationally with its representation in various platforms and is seen as one of the most well-respected NHRIs.

In my conversation with Chito early last year in his office, he said, the whole purpose of human rights is to remove human rights from contestation of politics. That meaning to say, whether you are from the left, the center, or the right of the political spectrum, we should all be able to agree on a set of human rights standards that are universal, that are inalienable and interdependent.

He is absolutely right. What took place in the House of Representatives was not only a major blow to human rights in the Philippines that used to champion democracy and human rights in the region, but also embarrassing to the accountability of these lawmakers whom voted in favor of the P, 1000 budget. It is crucial for the Philippines lawmakers to fully understand the crucial role of the institution such as the CHR in ensuring check and balance mechanisms to be continued in in function with no interference in the country to further advance the human rights protection.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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