The 15th Congress’ surprising output: A bumper crop of reform measures
It was disappointing, the way the last session of the 15th Congress ended, with the Senate in turmoil over Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s gestures of feudal favoritism with the people’s money and the House of Representatives’ unconscionable failure to pass the Freedom of Information Bill. But its tragicomic last act should not bury the fact that this Congress had a bumper crop of progressive measures strengthening social, political, and human rights.
At the top of the list is, of course, the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenthood Act. The significance of this measure lies not only in its advancing women’s rights and welfare and promoting sustainable and manageable population growth, but in its being a giant step towards completing the process of secularization that began with the Reform Movement of the ilustrados in the 19th century.
R.A. No. 10351, better known as the “Sin Tax,” broke the cancerous hold on the country’s health by the Lucio Tan–Philip Morris partnership while acquiring over P33 billion in its first year of implementation, the bulk of which will go towards kick-starting the government’s universal health program.
The Kasambahay Act brought long-delayed legal coverage to the millions of domestic workers that constitute the pillar of the household economy. Now they will be entitled to a minimum wage, social security and Pag-Ibig housing benefits, days off, and limits to their working hours. The Act, along with its signing the International Labor Organization’s Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, will also strengthen the government’s hand in negotiating stronger benefits and protections for our migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Owing to its implications for family finances, many in the middle class may not be happy with this bill now, but they will eventually come to accept it as necessary from a human and social rights perspective.
The Amended Anti-Trafficking Act strengthens the hand of the authorities in dealing with the cancer of human trafficking against which they have made little headway so far. It strengthens their power to prosecute pre-empted acts of trafficking. It eliminates the privacy clause previously enjoyed by traffickers, which means that people, including members of the media, who reveal the identities of those accused in human trafficking cases shall not be subjected to criminal sanctions. Finally, it penalizes the confiscation of travel documents such as passports and working permits from trafficked persons.
The landmark Marcos Compensation Act will finally bring some measure of justice to the more than 12,000 victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos period. Funded by P10 billion from the Marcos assets seized by the Swiss government and turned over to the Philippines, the Act is one of the few, if not the only instance, a government anywhere in the world has made financial reparations to victims of human rights violations.
Alongside the Marcos Compensation Act as a milestone human rights measure is the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act. Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the principal authors, told the Inquirer that the measure is “a milestone in Asia as it will be the first national law to criminalize enforced disappearance as a separate or distinct offense.” The Act provides for a penalty of from 20 to 40 years in prison, renders illegal “orders of battle” that give police and military units blanket power to deal with targeted individuals, outlaws secret detention centers, and mandates the compensation, restitution and rehabilitation of victims. The only major flaw of the Act is its not covering non-state actors, which have also been responsible for acts of forced disappearance, a provision that several of its authors, including myself, fought for, unsuccessfully.
A final feather in the cap of the 15th Congress was ratified on the very last day of the last session on February 6. This was the Amended Overseas Voting Act, which did away with the requirement that those registering to vote overseas must file an affidavit stating they will return to the Philippines after three years. It also empowered the Commission on Elections to explore new technologies of registration and voting, including internet registration and voting, and make recommendations to Congress on their adoption. With over 10 million Filipinos now living and working abroad, the amended law is expected to dramatically expand the number of overseas voters. A commonly accepted view is that, owing to their cosmopolitan experiences, Filipinos working overseas are not easily subverted by the blandishments of traditional politicians and are likely to base their vote mainly on candidates’ stands on issues and their programs instead of feudal loyalties or bribes. This amended law will provide a good test of this thesis, and if the outcome is as expected, then people will look back on it as a major step forward in the modernization and maturation of Philippine democracy.
Yes, despite its unfortunate ending, the 15th Congress has been a historic Congress. There, of course, remains much that remains to be done, and passing laws does not guarantee that they will be implemented effectively. But legislating reform is a conditio sine qua non for the reform process, and the 15th Congress, along with the impressive initiatives of the President in the area of good governance, provides proof that despite its grave imperfections, Philippine democracy is capable of self-transformation.
*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents the partylist Akbayan in the House of Representatives.