Banner – MANILA — Several Philippine senators vowed to ensure a higher budget for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in 2018 after the House of Representatives approved a measly P1,000 (around $20) budget for the constitutional body next year.
One hundred and nineteen lawmakers from the lower chamber on Tuesday, September 12 voted to cut the agency’s proposed budget from P677 million to P1,000. Only 32 congressmen objected to the budget.
A mix of majority and minority senators have expressed opposition to the House decision, vowing to restore the full allocation of the agency, which has repeatedly criticized the alleged killings and abuses in President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called drug war.
The Senate finance committee, chaired by Senator Loren Legarda, earlier approved the proposed CHR budget amounting to P678 million.
Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, vice chairman of the committee, questioned where the slashed funds million has been realigned, noting that the House version of the 2018 national budget stayed at P3.767 trillion.
“I happen to be the sponsor of the CHR budget in the Senate, along with a few other agencies like the DND (Department of National Defense), ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), etc. I accept the challenge,” Lacson said in a Twitter post.
“It’s interesting to find out how the P677 million was chopped,” he added.
In a message, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto assured that the Senate will restore the CHR budget. Citing the increasing extrajudicial deaths in the country, he pointed out that the agency might need more funds.
“The CHR is a constitutional body mandated by the constitution to protect our human rights. It may even need more resources considering the number of extrajudicial killings,” Recto said.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian remarked that the House decision “effectively abolish the CHR,” which he said serves as an important “check and balance” to the government.
“Congress should not reduce the budget of the Commission on Human Rights, a constitutionally mandated body, to a mere P1,000. This would effectively abolish the CHR, at least for the coming fiscal year, in clear contravention of the constitutional provision mandating the establishment of this independent office,” Gatchalian said in a statement.
Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero also vowed to fight to restore the CHR budget, saying, “The CHR is a constitutional imperative and a necessity, however inconvenient it may be for some.”
Likewise, Senator Joel Villanueva, stressed that the CHR ”has a constitutional duty to protect the people from abuses.”
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, meanwhile, expressed certainty that Senate “will give a more generous budget” to the CHR.
“It is a body tasked to check abuse and uphold fundamental rights. Recall that was the CHR which discovered the hidden cell in a city jail with women and children unaccounted for. That act alone justifies more,” Angara added.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon warned of a possible deadlock in the 2018 budget and the reenactment of the 2017 budget.
“The Senate, I would like to think, will not stand for the abolition of the CHR, through giving it a P1,000 budget. If the House will insist on that, then there will be a deadlock for 2018 general appropriations act,” Drilon said.
Minority Senators Francis Pangilinan, Bam Aquino, and Risa Hontiveros also shared the same sentiments.
Pangilinan dismissed the House decision as “Kalokohan (Nonsense).” He said the Senate will “strongly oppose” the meager CHR budget’s approval in the Senate even it means the non-passage of the 2018 budget
Aquino, on the other hand, said the CHR needs to continue doing its duty as mandated by the Constitution as he took note of the supposed spate of drug war killings and police abuses.
“What government in its right mind would give a P1,000 budget to the [CHR]? Speaker Alvarez’s demand for the CHR head to resign is out of place,” Hontiveros said in an interview with ANC on Wednesday, September 13.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier insisted that the agency is the not doing its job. Prior to the deliberations, he said CHR Chairman Chito Gascon should step down if they wanted a higher budget for the agency.
‘A display of vindictiveness’
For its part, the CHR described the House decision as a “display of vindictiveness.”
“Despite this defeat in the House, we look forward to defending our budget in the Senate,” Gascon said. “We hope that reason, necessity, and rational minds will prevail both in the Senate and in the bicameral committee.”
Commissioner Leah Armamento said the miniscule budget set aside for the CHR will greatly affect the agency’s operations—including the funding of its witness protection program and free legal assistance to human rights victims.
“Ganun ba kahalaga ang human rights ng tao para sa ating gobyerno ngayon, yung P1000 na yun? Di ba parang nakakainsulto sa taong bayan yun? (Is human rights worth this much to our government? That P1,000? Isn’t that an insult.)” she told ABS-CBN News
Armamento also pointed out that Gascon’s resignation would create a “precedent that we can be bullied and then as an independent body, we will now cater to the whims of a political party.”
“Hindi naman kami kalaban ng gobyerno (We are not an enemy of the government),” she further noted. “We are the conscience of the people so we are here to provide limitations to the immense powers of the state.”
In a separate statement, CHR reminded that Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano promised a higher budget of the agency for 2018 during the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations (UN) body last May.
“Included was a promise to continually augment the CHR’s budget, citing last year’s increase from P439 million to P724 million, as a way to show that this administration supports human rights programs and initiatives,”CHR said in a Facebook post.
Disrespect, threat to Filipinos
Vice President Leni Robredo also slammed the House move, saying it threatens democracy and disrespects the Constitution and human rights of Filipinos.
“Tila pagbuwag sa CHR ang magiging epekto ng desisyong ito. (The effect of this decision is similar to demolishing the CHR.),” Robredo remarked.
Citing the “widespread violence and killings” under Duterte’s drug war, she said the budget cut was bothersome as it “cripples the main agency tasked to protect human rights.”
“Nagbabadya ito ng kawalan ng respeto sa ating Saligang Batas at sa karapatang pantao — parehong banta sa demokrasya (This signals a lack of respect for the Constitution and human rights–both threats to the democracy.)” she added.