By Ben Rosario
The House of Representatives is gearing for a head-on collision with the Senate to defend its P1,000 allocation for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez declared Thursday.
Interviewed over DZMM by broadcast journalist Ted Failon, Alvarez said senators cannot always impose their will on the issue, adding that the Lower House will insist on using its power of the purse to stand by its decision.
Alvarez has been vocal about his criticism of the CHR and had, in fact, declared that the beleaguered constitutional body will get its comeuppance for strongly criticizing the Duterte administration’s anti-drug war and for failing to help defend the human rights of civilians against drug-crazed murderers and terrorists.
The House official’s stand was strongly backed in the plenary when 119 congressmen, acting on a motion by 1Sagip Party-list Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, approved a P1,000 CHR budget in 2018. At least 32 opposed the motion.
Reps. Henedina Abad (LP, Batanes), Sherwin Tugna (CIBAC Partylist), Ruffy Biazon (LP, Muntinlupa City), and Vilma Santos (LP, Batangas), all members of the Alvarez-led supermajority bloc, said they would have joined the “nay” side had they been present during the voting last Tuesday.
While the House allocated only P1,000, the Senate Committee on Finance approved the P678-million allocation sought by the CHR.
Several Senate members, including Senators Manny Pacquiao and Panfilo Lacson, vowed to restore the CHR budget to the original proposal.
“Ako iginagalang ko ang Senado pero hindi po basta yun ang gusto ng Senado yun ang masusunod. Yun lang po ang masasabi ko diyan (I respect the Senate but not everything that they willed shall be granted. That’s all I can say about it),” Alvarez said, reacting to the Senate’s move to approve the budget sought by the CHR.
Alvarez, a lawyer, pointed out that the Constitution mandates that the power of the purse belongs to the Lower House, adding that this is the reason all appropriation measures should originate exclusively in the chamber.
Despite his strong criticism of the CHR, especially its chairman Chito Gascon, Alvarez hinted of a compromise with the Senate during the deliberations of the bicameral conference committee to reconcile the different versions of the 2018 budget approved by the House and the Senate.
“Puwede po kaming mag-usap doon. Pero hindi pupwede kung ano yung gusto nila yun ang susundin namin (We can talk. But we cannot just give in to what they want us to do),” he said.
The House official explained that the House slapped CHR with a P1,000 budget for its failure to perform its mandate to protect the human rights of all Filipinos.
He chided the agency for not following to the letter its mandate under Article XIII, Section 18, paragraph 1, that tasks it to “investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights.”
According to Alvarez, the CHR is also mandated to “provide appropriate legal measures for the protection of human rights of all persons within the Philippines, as well as Filipinos residing abroad, and provide for preventive measures and legal aid services to the under-privileged whose human rights have been violated or need protection.”
These constitutional provisions, according to Alvarez, clearly show CHR is mistaken in its notion that its mandate is to check only human rights abuses committed by the police, military, or other agents of the government.
Alvarez said that as representatives of the people, the House has the responsibility to hold CHR accountable for not doing its job.
Public fund drive
Should Congress insist on a P1,000, opposition congressmen and a group of human rights lawyers expressed support for a public fund drive to augment the CHR budget.
“I’m studying it (holding a public fund drive),” said Ifugao lone district Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr., de facto leader of the “Magnificent Seven” opposition bloc.
“I hope I can have partners who can help plan it,” added Baguilat, a Liberal Party (LP) member and three-term congressman.
Artikulo 3 Human Rights Alliance, Inc., simply known as Artikulo 3, called for a public fund drive to support the operations of the CHR. The group’s board include former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, former senator Rene Saguisag, former Environment secretary Fulgencio Factoran, and other human lawyers during the martial law era. The veteran human rights lawyers, members of the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, and Nationalism (MABINI) during martial law, teamed up with younger lawyers to form Artikulo 3. The group’s name was based on Article 3, the Bill of Rights, of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
Lawyer Hilda Clave, president of Artikulo 3, criticized Speaker Alvarez and the 119 congressmen who voted to allocate a measly P1,000 budget for CHR.
“Speaker Alvarez is taking the country down the road of tyranny, where the Constitution is treated as a mere scrap of paper, independent institutions are shackled, and the people’s right to live in dignity are sacrificed in the name of the ongoing drug war which has resulted in several extra judicial killings,” Clave, representing the group, said.
“I will support any fund drive to support the CHR,” said another Magnificent Seven lawmaker in Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano.
“Sa panahon ngayon na may malawakang paglabag sa karapatang pantao, kailangan natin ng matibay na CHR (During these times of widespread human rights abuses, we need a strong CHR),” Alejano, a former Marine captain, said.
Akbayan Party-List Rep. Tom Villarin, another opposition congressman, gave thumbs up to such fund drive efforts but nonetheless stressed that it’s Congress’s role to allocate a workable fund for CHR and other agencies of such nature.
“The effort by the public is much appreciated but it is the duty of Congress to appropriate funds to a constitutional body. Failure to do so would be a violation of our Constitution and is repugnant in our democracy.
“Our citizens should hold their elected representatives accountable as it is their taxes that pay for them,” Villarin said.
AKO-Bicol Party-List Rep. Rodel Batocabe, a solon from the Supermajority, also welcomed a public fund drive for the CHR.
“That would be a symbolic move to show support to the CHR as an institution and underscore its importance in our democratic process,” he said.
Batocabe, president of the 46-member Party-List Coalition (PLC), had earlier said that appropriating P1,000 for the CHR would give the Philippines a “bad image.”
Artikulo 3 said the CHR is a constitutional body and the actions of the House “violates the Constitution which enshrines respect and protection of human rights.”
“We, therefore, appeal to the Filipino people who value human rights and democracy to contribute to a fund to support the operations of the CHR, which is a government agency created and provided under Article 13, Section 17 of the Philippine Constitution,” Clave stated.
The group cited Section 1 of Article 13 mandating Congress “to give highest priority to the enactment that protect and enhance the rights of the people to human dignity, reduce social, economic and political iniquities, and remove cultural iniquities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good.” (With reports from Ellson A. Quismorio, Martin A. Sadongdong, and Chito A. Chavez)