Seizing control of rights agenda | Inquirer Opinion

Seizing control of rights agenda

/ 05:12 AM May 21, 2024

As busy as the executive department is in running the Cabinet, the justice and interior departments in enforcing the law and catching fugitives, and the foreign department in resolving diplomatic squabbles, it seems their hands aren’t full enough for Malacañang. Last week, their secretaries were saddled with a new part-time job—as stewards of an interagency “super body” on human rights.

But far from being impressed, the human rights community was instead left baffled by the decision of President Marcos to establish the Special Committee on Human Rights Coordination under Administrative Order No. 22.

The question on everyone’s mind: Why?

Most puzzling was the fact that this newly created body would relegate the Commission on Human Rights (CHR)—the only public office with the constitutional mandate and legitimate expertise to protect Filipinos’ human rights—to an optional role, essentially, as an afterthought.


CHR’s own mandate

Under AO 22, the special committee is to be overseen by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin as chair and Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla as cochair, with Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo and Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos as members.

The committee has been tasked to “strengthen existing mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights,” and “facilitate access to redress mechanisms by victims of human rights violations.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the wording is similar to the CHR’s own mandate. The 1987 Constitution created the CHR as an independent office with the power to, among others, “investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights,” and “provide appropriate legal measures for the protection of human rights” of all Filipinos.


The keyword, of course, is “independent,” the same adjective the commission’s chair Richard Palpal-latoc used last week in his attempt to differentiate his agency from the new one.

‘Superfluous addition’


Yet, the extent of the CHR’s involvement in the special committee is not even clearly defined in the order but subject to a hypothetical situation. Per AO 22, as part of a “human rights-based approach toward drug control,” the special committee “may, whenever necessary, invite” as member or observer “such other government agencies,” including the CHR.

For obvious reasons, the CHR did not express any outward dissatisfaction toward Malacañang’s surprise move. “There is no conflict because we remain to be an independent body who will monitor the government’s compliance and also protect and promote human rights in the Philippines,” said Palpal-latoc, the former deputy executive secretary for legal affairs tapped by Mr. Marcos to helm the CHR in September 2022.

Naturally, rights watchdogs were not appeased. Butch Olano, director of the Philippine Section of Amnesty International, called the new human rights body a “superfluous addition to an already convoluted justice system in the country.”

A propaganda tool

A common theme arose from the criticisms: Was the new committee, as the group Karapatan described it, “a desperate attempt to window-dress the grave human rights situation” in the Philippines?

Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division put it more succinctly: “[The] committee will function mainly as a propaganda tool of the government to respond to criticism of the government’s dismal human rights record.” Even former senator Leila de Lima, who spoke positively of the committee, cautioned that it might become “an echo chamber of government propaganda.”

One could hardly blame them for being skeptical of the government’s motivations, considering the poor human rights record of some of the agencies at the helm.

Consider this: Two of its members—the justice and interior secretaries—also sit on the government office that has earned a reputation for violating, rather than protecting, human rights: the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, or NTF-Elcac, which Mr. Marcos refuses to dissolve despite heightening clamor.

Source of financing

Even more telling is the source of financing. AO 22 states that the special committee will be funded from the budgets of member agencies and likewise authorized to accept local or foreign “donations and assistance.” All that while the CHR struggles to defend its appropriations every year, bereft of fiscal autonomy and subject to the whims of incumbent leaders. Why would economic managers and lawmakers bother to fund the CHR now when there is a committee vested with identical powers?

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Ultimately, the issue boils down to control. An executive body can be molded into any shape the government likes, the better for it to influence political narratives surrounding Red-tagging, extrajudicial killings, and other rights abuses, now or in the past. Unless the administration can disprove these suspicions, its intentions seem clear: to enfeeble the CHR and seize control of the human rights agenda.


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