By Hannah Torregoza, Mario Casayuran, and Genalyn Kabiling
President Duterte’s allies in the Senate on Wednesday vowed to fight for a “bigger” budget for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) after its counterparts in the Lower House granted the agency a measly P1,000 budget for 2018.
“I am sure that the Senate will give the CHR a more generous budget. It is a body tasked to check abuse and uphold fundamental rights,” Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara said in a statement.
Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson, vice chairman of the Senate finance committee, said the Senate will likely cross party lines during plenary debates in defending the proposed P678-million CHR budget for 2018.
“We will debate on this issue in plenary session to determine the extent of the support of our colleagues so that we can have a unified position when meeting our colleagues at the Lower House during a bicameral conference committee,” Lacson said.
Asked how the CHR budget issue would play out during a bicameral conference meeting based on his experience as a lawmaker, Lacson said he trusts that the pro-Duterte administration majority bloc in the Senate would support the pro-CHR position of the five-member Senate minority bloc.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon, a former Senate President, and Sen. Francis Pangilinan, president of the opposition Liberal Party (LP), lead the Senate minority bloc.
Angara recalled it was the CHR that discovered the secret jail cell at a police precinct in Tondo, Manila that held women and children unaccounted for at the height of the Duterte administrations war on drugs.
“That act alone justifies (for) more (funds for them),” Angara said.
“It is a body tasked to check abuse and uphold fundamental rights. When I defended their budget way back in 2014, I asked them to focus too on socioeconomic rights and not solely on civil and political rights. Let’s fight for everyone’s rights not just when they die or are threatened, but let us also uphold everyone’s right to live a dignified life where needs and opportunities are attended to,” the senator added.
Sen. Lacson who is the sponsor of the CHR budget in the Senate said he “accepts the challenge” and vowed that the Senate will stand its ground on the issue.
“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 on Twitter.
“The Senate, I would like to think, will not stand for the abolition of the CHR, through giving it a P1,000 but if the House will insist on that, then there will be a deadlock for the 2018 General Appropriations Act (national budget),” Drilon said.
“We stand by the decision of the sub-committee of Senator Lacson to give the CHR P678 million budget for 2018,” Drilon added.
“The Senate minority will support him in restoring, or even increasing, the budget of the constitutional commission mandated by no less than the Constitution to protect human rights and to conduct investigations on human rights violations against marginalized and vulnerable sectors of the society.”
Lacson said it is also interesting to note and ask how House lawmakers “chopped” and realigned the P677-million budget of the CHR.
“The proposed 2018 national budget stayed at P3.767-trillion even after it reduced the agency’s P677.99-million budget to P1,000. It’s interesting to find out how the P677-million was chopped,” Lacson said.
Gascon to blame
President Duterte denied having a hand in the lawmakers’ decision to reduce the CHR budget. Duterte said the CHR chair has only himself to blame for the huge budget cut. But he remains hopeful the lawmakers would review the decision. He said CHR chair Chito Gascon “had it coming.”
“Ngayon ‘yang 1,000 na binigay na ng Congress sa opisina niya, kasi galit ang Congress sa kanya [Congress gave his office a P1,000 budget because Congress is angry at him,” the President said during a press conference at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
“Pero ako naman [But for me] since it is really an organ of government, it’s on the Constitution. Maybe someday, they might review their decision. I’m not here to destroy institutions,” he added.
The President also advised Gascon to learn when to make a stand or stay quiet. “If you are not sure of yourself or where you stand, you might as well just maybe shut up,” he added.
Duterte scored Gascon for meddling in police investigations and coming up with premature conclusions. He said the CHR should compile cases before making the appropriate recommendation.
“They cannot just investigate. Wala naman silang prosecutory power [They don’t have any prosecutory power],” Duterte said about the CHR.
“How are you supposed to be neutral? Ikaw na ‘yung pulis, ikaw pa ‘yung piskal. Tapos when you decide to prosecute, ikaw ‘yung judge [You’re the police, fiscal and when you decide to prosecute, you’re also the judge],” he said.
Duterte also criticized Gascon’s alleged partiality in probing drug-related deaths but ignoring the rights violations committed by local terror groups.