Philippine members of Congress allied with President Rodrigo Duterte have voted to allocate an annual budget of just US$20, or 1,000 pesos, to the Commission on Human Rights, a reduction from the current budget of US$14.7 million. The move appears to be intended to de facto abolish a public body that has clashed repeatedly with Duterte over his bloody war on drugs.
Members of the Senate's lower house supported the move to cut the budget to almost nil by a margin of 119 to 32 in what critics of the anti-drugs campaign call retaliation for the agency's efforts to investigate thousands of killings of primarily poor drug users and small-time peddlers since Duterte assumed office 15 months ago.
Critics maintain police are executing suspects and innocent people, and say the government has what is effectively a kill policy. Duterte has angrily rejected that and police say they kill only in self-defense, but anger has come to a boil among many Filipinos following recent extra-judicial killings that claimed the lives of children.
"If you want to protect the rights of criminals, get your budget from the criminals," house speaker and close Duterte ally Pantaleon Alvarez said mockingly. "It's that simple. Why should you get budget from the government and yet you are not doing your job?"
“Emasculating and killing the CHR with an annual budget of only (US$20) is unconstitutional, because it virtually abolishes a constitutional body or office by legislation,” Congressman Edcel Lagman said. “We cannot abolish a constitutional office by legislation.”
The Commission had originally requested a budget of US$34 million or 1.72 billion pesos for 2018, but the government proposed US$13 million, or 678 million pesos. Congress voted to slash that to just 1,000 pesos. The budget requires another vote, then Senate approval before it becomes final.
Human rights monitors said the CHR, while severely flawed in terms of executing its duties, was a necessary institution that stands no chance of doing its job without a proper budget.
Cristina Palabay, the secretary-general of progressive human rights group Karapatan, blasted the move as an attempt by Duterte's “sycophants” to advance their “fascist and anti-people schemes” by clipping the functions of a body mandated to oversee human rights violations committed by state actors.
“Karapatan has consistently criticized the CHR for its partiality to and complicity with state security forces on the numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, harassment and forced evacuation of communities of Indigenous peoples, peasants and activists and its turning a blind eye on the plight of political prisoners,” Palabay said.
Despite its flaws, she added, Karapatan still sees “the recent attempts of the Duterte administration to de facto abolish the CHR as a dangerous step that undermines available mechanisms for redress for human rights violations in this so-called democratic form of government.”
Agnes Callamard, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said Filipinos deserved a strong, independent rights organization that could hold the state accountable.
"Instead they are getting a 'war on drugs' which, by the president's own account, has failed to curtail addiction rates, while creating a climate of fear and insecurity, feeding impunity, and undermining the constitutional fabrics of the Country," Callamard posted on her Facebook page. "If the Philippines Congress is looking for public money being wasted, damaging and hurting the Philippines society, this is it."
Student youth group Anakbayan lashed out at the move as part of the president's “scheme to eliminate all opposition to extrajudicial killings and consolidate his fascist dictatorship.” The group has criticized Duterte as shifting from an alliance with the left and stated goal of shifting toward an independent foreign policy to an open embrace of U.S. “imperialists,” a result of the influence of military figures in his government whom he fears will overthrow him.
“Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory, oft-criticized performance of the CHR in fulfilling its duties, the move is a solid uppercut designed to worsen the Philippine human rights situation and bring the opposition further to its knees,” the group said in a statement. “As innocent youth and urban poor are cut down nightly in the streets, the assault aims to send a chilling message against those opposing the U.S.-Duterte fascist regime’s mass murder and martial law.”
“This is in line with Duterte’s latest threat of declaring nationwide martial law by using as pretext protest actions labeled as 'street violence' amidst his regime’s ceaseless justification for the systematic murder of drug suspects, activists, revolutionaries, and ordinary citizens. Duterte meanwhile, blasts supposed media bias, and routinely condemns human rights groups criticizing his bloody war on drugs,” the group added.
CHR head Chito Gascon said the measly budget was an attempt to force his resignation. He said he would take the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary.
"The principal reason why I cannot resign my office is that to do so is to weaken the institution itself," Gascon said. "Asking me to resign would lead to essentially making the institution forever at the mercy of politics."
Popular movements and human rights groups in the country are hoping to step up their protests against Duterte's rights violations, regardless of what happens in the bicameral legislative halls or the presidential palace.