Understanding the Commission on Human Rights
Photo from the Commission on Human Rights official Facebook page
ONE HUNDRED nineteen votes was what it took for the House of Representatives to downsize the budget of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to a piddling PHP1,000 for 2018. Congressmen, who acted on a motion by SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta on September 12, accused the CHR of failure to fulfill its mandate. Marcoleta, among other things, claimed that Congress could not appropriate budget to the CHR because it was not “validly created;” that it failed to probe human rights abuses in the Mamasapano incident, the Marawi siege, and the constant banditry of the Abu Sayyaf Group; that it was more concerned about UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard; and that the agency failed to protect President Duterte against criticism from the New York Times.
Along with the CHR, the congressmen also gutted the budget of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the Energy Regulatory Board (ERC).
The public scored the move, especially on social media where lists of those who opposed were posted so these could be hailed. Congressmen and senators who opposed the decision also aired their dismay. But the lawmakers behind the vote were unfazed and stood their ground, with House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez dismissing critics as “fools.”
A day before the vote, Alvarez told the CHR to get the budget somewhere else. “Ngayon, kung gusto mong protektahan yung rights ng mga kriminal, ay kumuha ka ng budget doon sa mga kriminal, ganoon lang kasimple yun. Bakit ka kumukuha ng budget sa gobyerno, hindi mo ginagawa yung tungkulin mo (Now, if you want to protect the rights of criminals, then get the budget from criminals, it’s that simple. Why are you getting the budget from the government if you are not performing your duty)?”
All this was hardly a surprise with the House controlled by the administration. Political debates in the two houses are not always just talk or in aid of legislation. Discourse has led to concrete action to eliminate critics such as Senator Leila de Lima.
With the CHR among autonomous government agencies assigned to examine the conduct of the drug war and criticize state action and policy as necessary, the body was an easy target, vulnerable to punitive budgetary cuts. An annual budget of PHP1,000 may have been a joke, but Alvarez and company were trying to make another extreme point.
Lawmakers of the ruling party have not been shy about following President Duterte’s lead, acting out his hostility against human rights advocates, and painting human rights as a hindrance to the government agenda, which they describe as protection of the law and order, safety and security of Filipinos.
Meanwhile, the Senate took to the high ground with bipartisan resolve expressed by a seeming majority to reinstate CHR’s budget.
Eight days later on September 20, the House turned around on their decision. After three agency heads appealed to Alvarez, House Committee on Appropriations chair Karlo Nograles received the signal to restore the budget of the three agencies.
Initial reports in the media, as expected, carried the explanations offered by lawmakers who voted for or against the budget slash. Most accounts revealed the media’s lack of appreciation or understanding of CHR’s mandate, as these carried the complaints against CHR’s performance without question or context.
Instead of checking out the organizational documents, reports focused more on the looming standoff between members of the House and Senate in the bicameral meeting, and the opinions of personalities about the issue, including the president who lashed out at the agency, particularly CHR Chairman Jose Luis “Chito” Gascon.
Misconceptions, misleading claims
Many Filipinos are as uninformed. The constant demonization of human rights by President Duterte has led many to believe that the CHR is simply biased against the Duterte administration so that it investigates human rights violation (HRV) cases involving the Philippine National Police (PNP) and ignoring those perpetrated by private individuals. Lawmakers have openly said that CHR should look into all forms of HRVs. This led to accusations that the agency was being selective and that the body is a protector of criminals.
CHR critics have called attention to the fact that Chairman Gascon was appointed by the previous president and is a member of the Liberal Party. But Gascon has pointed out that he has not been active in the party since his appointment and denied that his work has been partisan.
The CHR and its mandate
The mandate of the CHR is to look into the observance of human rights in the country. It is directed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution to ensure that the government complies with international treaties on human rights signed onto by the Philippine government (Article XIII, Section 18-7). This includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In addition, under the Paris Principles, the CHR is a duly recognized National Human Rights Institution, which means that the body is effectively a “watchdog against human rights abuses by the government,” as explained by the commission through a September 8 post on its official Facebook page.
As such, the CHR has bark, but no bite. It examines cases on its own or on the basis of complaints brought to its attention but holds no prosecutorial powers. It can expose, criticize, condemn but it cannot pursue cases in court. It can only recommend such action. (“VERA Files Fact Sheet: The Commission on Human Rights, explained,” VERA Files, August 2)
HRVs perpetrated by non-state actors, that is, private individuals, are considered crimes which fall under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system, starting with the police, prosecutors of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the courts.
CMFR cheers exceptional efforts in the media that set the record straight and to correct erroneous notions flowing through social media.
Joy Aceron, convenor-director of action research organization G-Watch, argues that the focus on preventing state abuse is “in reaction to the excesses that the state had perpetrated in the past.” Aceron said this is premised on two principles: that “public office is public trust” and that “the state is supposedly powerful.” Following these ideas, the CHR then serves as a means to hold the state accountable and as a mechanism for check and balance that would guard against abuse or misuse of power. (“Accountability and human rights: The role of the CHR,” Rappler, August 6)
GMA-7 resident analyst Prof. Richard Heydarian echoed Aceron’s analysis. Recalling Philippine history, Heydarian said a proper interpretation of the CHR’s mandate leads to the understanding that the body “was primarily created to avoid the horrors of Martial Law,” specifically the human rights calamity that came with it under the Marcos dictatorship. The CHR is then “primarily (but not solely) tasked with protecting the political rights and civil liberties of citizens against abusive elements in the state.” (“5 key things about the Commission on Human Rights,” GMA News Online, September 18)
Dr. Antonio La Viña, lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, shared a similar understanding. In a GMA News Online report, La Viña explained that although the CHR is mandated to address all forms of HRVs, its priority “should rightly be state actors.”
Lawyer Marlon Manuel of the Ateneo School of Law agreed with La Viña. “The Constitution’s mandate for CHR is mainly civil-political rights, and in this area it is the State that is the duty-bearer. Killings done by criminals are crimes within the primary authority and jurisdiction of the police and justice system,” Manuel said in the same report. (“Marcoleta wrong in questioning CHR’s creation by Cory – experts,” September 18)
CHR’s efforts to explain
In the wake of the controversial vote, CHR officials also tried to communicate the points raised above.
Speaking to CNN Philippines’ The Source, CHR Commissioner Roberto Cadiz explained the distinction between the mandate of the CHR and of the police. Cadiz emphasized that investigating common crimes is the primary job of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and not the CHR, while investigating alleged abuses by the government is the CHR’s duty. “When state agents such as policemen or officers of the government commit these atrocities, that’s when the CHR comes in,” he said.
Cadiz also criticized congressmen, including House Speaker Alvarez, for their lack of understanding of the commission’s mandate. (“Congressmen don’t understand CHR mandate: Commissioner,” September 13)
CHR officials have repeatedly explained the commission’s mandate in the past. For example, Cadiz said in a July 1 report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer that under traditional definitions, HRVs are committed by the state. He also clarified that the CHR is not against the government’s peace and order program but the shortcutting of processes. “We put pressure not for the purpose of harassing or embarrassing our government, but for making them accountable so human rights violations don’t continue,” Cadiz said. (“CHR: We’re after abuses by gov’t, not crimes by ordinary civilians”)
CHR Commissioner Gwen Pimentel-Gana echoed Cadiz’ point in an interview with ANC’s Headstart on September 18. Pimentel-Gana stressed that the CHR is mandated to primarily monitor any abuses done by “duty-bearers” such as the government, and reiterated that investigations are done “to aid the government to be better duty-bearers in helping out, fulfilling the rights of every individual,” which is contrary to claims that the CHR is out to destroy the government. “They should not hate us for doing that because that is our mandate,” she said.
The commissioner also underscored that in upholding their mandate to investigate all forms of HRVs, the CHR “monitors” cases and gives importance on who committed the violation. (“Why doesn’t CHR help primarily rape, crime victims?”)
While the CHR may have its shortcomings and limitations, its existence is nonetheless essential, most especially today amid the growing concerns over cases of alleged extrajudicial killings and abuse of power by the very institutions that swore to protect the people. Erring authorities must be held to account, but the public must also do its part to relearn the value of their rights before these are taken away from them.
What to do when elected politicians, paid by people’s taxes, are the source of misinformation or outright disinformation? Media’s obligation is clear. Journalists, as the watchdog of power, should call them out, expose their shameful ignorance or malicious deceit.