Zero understanding of the Charter?
Why on earth did the House of Representatives approve on Tuesday a P1,000 budget for the Commission on Human Rights for 2018?
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez had previously threatened to give the CHR “zero budget,” calling it “useless for not doing its job,” and accusing it of protecting the rights only of criminals and terrorists.
Reacting to the CHR’s call for the investigation of police personnel involved in drug-related extrajudicial killings, Alvarez, a lawyer, demanded to know: Where was the CHR when people were being victimized by criminals? Why is it protecting the rights of drug suspects and not of everyone, including those of the police?
If the CHR wants to protect only the rights of criminals, he said, then it should get its budget from criminals.
Alvarez appeared to be taking his cue from President Duterte, who had called out the CHR during his first and second State of the Nation Addresses and had threatened to abolish it, saying he would not allow it to investigate military and police suspects without his approval.
For the benefit of those still in the dark about the mandate of the CHR, which was created under the 1987 Constitution, here are the facts as explained by its spokesperson, lawyer Jacqueline de Guia: Ensuring that government officials and personnel do not abuse their powers at the expense of human rights is the main function of the CHR. Human rights violations by criminals are beyond its scope and are instead covered by the mandate of the Philippine National Police. The CHR is meant “to further the principle of checks and balances in government to ensure that [with it] as watchdog or monitor, there will be no abuse of power by government authorities.”
(In an illustrated post on social media, netizens pitched in and explained simply that: “If an offense or human right violation is being perpetrated by a criminal, call the police. But if it’s the state — the police, military, or government personnel — that’s committing the crime, call the CHR.”)
In reducing the CHR’s budget to a nominal P1,000, did the members of the House — most of them law professionals — betray their zero understanding of the Constitution?
Citing Art. XIII, Sec. 17, which describes the CHR as an “independent office” guaranteed “fiscal autonomy,” former solicitor general Florin Hilbay tweeted: “Congress cannot reduce the budget of the CHR … without violating its independence and mandate as a constitutional office.”
De Guia explained further: “Fiscal autonomy … means [the CHR’s] budget cannot go lower. And as a matter of principle, [its budget] should also be automatically released,” the rationale being that as an independent body that looks into government actions, “the CHR shouldn’t be hampered in terms of its resources.”
Aside from ignorance of the law, could the House members who approved the P1,000 budget be getting back at CHR Chair Jose Luis Gascon for his stubborn resolve to look into EJKs despite warnings from the President?
For one, Rep. Karlo Nograles told reporters that the House committee on appropriations, which he chairs, had previously deferred discussing the CHR’s budget because the agency was still hounded by “unresolved issues.”
The lawmaker said: “Masyado kaming pinapangunahan ni Chairman Gascon (He’s getting ahead of himself). He is practically begging that Congress give him a P1 budget by spreading those rumors [about the state’s human rights violations].”
The CHR can still appeal the P1,000 budget at the Senate, and the latter can instead approve what the Department of Budget and Management itself had proposed for the commission: P649.484 million for 2018.
That budget will go a long way in helping the CHR fulfill its mandate by allowing it enough resources to set up offices in and send personnel to remote areas and regions where human rights violations and impunity thrive in darkness.
“As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I know the limits of the power and authority of the President… My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising,” Mr. Duterte said when he took his oath of office.
Gascon said he was taking heart from the President’s own words despite contrary signals from the President’s lieutenants.
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