Low on So Many Levels
By: Zy-za Nadine Suzara & Rupert Mangilit
It was a move that left human rights advocates worldwide gaping in shock.
On Sept. 13, the House of Representatives slashed the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) budget to a measly P1,000.00 (barely USD 20.00). An incensed Rodante Marcoleta took the floor, denouncing CHR’s supposed failure to defend President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights which, he claimed, The New York Times violated. The 1-SAGIP Partylist referred to a scathing editorial that urged the International Criminal Court to look into the murders committed under Oplan Tokhang, the state anti-drug policy carried out by the Philippine National Police (PNP) under the President’s orders. He ended his outburst with a motion to slash its budget. The yes votes, 112 in all, had it.
This unfortunate episode served as a climax to the mounting displeasure against the human rights agency by individuals in and outside the legislative chambers who decidedly support the anti-drug campaign. While they have claimed the streets are safer than before as a result, 13,000 individuals have been killed in police operations over just a space of 16 months. Command Memorandum Circular 16—currently under scrutiny before the Supreme Court—has emboldened the police to ignore not only due process but also the fundamental right to life. Suffice it to say that the displeased supermajority in Congress flexed its muscle and showed the CHR to what great lengths they could go if the agency would keep harping on Tokhang.
The attempt to butcher the CHR budget revealed three things. First, a few legislators had little grasp of the work it does. The Constitution, particularly Article XIII, tasks the CHR to ensure state agencies, including the police, protect people’s rights, and to intervene when agencies undermine these rights. Street crimes and terrorist acts otherwise fall within the ambit of law enforcement agencies, as CHR spokespersons themselves have explained on countless occasions.
This lack of familiarity with CHR’s mandate casts doubts on the capability of some legislators to perform budget oversight. Besides data on its physical and financial performance, an agency’s roles and responsibilities can steer legislators toward sound and informed judgment on whether proposed programs and projects deserve greenlighting or scrapping.
Second, the legislators’ regard for human rights is so low that they are willing to render the human rights commission inoperable when patronage is at stake and egos, in this case the President’s, are bruised.
Even as CHR budget was eventually restored out of strong public clamor and the Senate’s commitment to uphold its budget, the Sept. 13 deliberations would be etched in recent history as the day the Congress mounted, to borrow words from Commissioner Chito Gascon, a “capricious display of vindictiveness,” the fate that awaits any other agency that would dare call out the drug war for its procedural and moral flaws.
Third, and this requires close inspection of the Proposed Budget for 2018, the CHR still got a lot less than the funds it initially asked, whether the Sept. 13 drama happened or not. Even before it submitted its proposal to congressional scrutiny, the figures it initially submitted to the Department of Budget and Management wound up 62.8 percent lower. In 2017, the budget submitted to Congress trimmed by 65.8 percent from its initial proposal.
Normally, an agency’s proposed budgets increase or decrease owing to DBM recommendations during Technical Budget Hearings. In the last few years, however, the CHR’s budget proposal would only be cut by an average 36 percent.
A further look into CHR budget’s line items reveal how the cut can affect programs crucial to performing its mandate. The proposed allocation for documentation of and action against violations committed by PNP and other state agents dropped by 22.1 and 22.3 percent, respectively. Significant cuts were also made for policy formation (53.6 percent), and General Administration and Support (83.5 percent), respectively.
If the proposed CHR budget would stay as it is by the time President Duterte signs the 2018 General Appropriations Bill, then CHR’s budget would be facing its biggest cut in the last 9 years, at nearly 10 percent. Between 2014 and 2017, its proposed and approved budgets grew steadily, albeit generally incremental. Budget cuts, which only happened thrice in the last decade, were only between 1.9 and 6.7 percent.
Incidentally, CHR’s 2017 allocation is also 13.9 percent lower than the amount the Philippines committed before the United Nations Human Rights Council. On the day of the massive budget cut, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, chair of the government peace panel negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, pointed out that the Philippines’ commitment to augment the agency’s budget to P724 million during the UN Universal Periodic Review in May “to show that this administration supports human rights programs and initiatives.”
But even if the government made good on its promise before the UN, the total CHR budget would still be just half (52 percent) of the combined P1.4-billion budget for Oplan Tokhang and MASA-MASID, which would apparently go on after president declared, on Nov. 22, the return of the PNP to the anti-drug effort weeks after being carried out by the understaffed, underfunded Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.
With funds at CHR’s disposal, how far can it go in seeking justice for such a well-oiled enabler of state-sponsored atrocities?
 Figures are culled from the 2018 National Expenditure Program (NEP)
 Computations based on figures from the 2018 NEP and the Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing.
 However, there were moves by minority Senators to reallocate funding for MASA MASID and Oplan Tokhang to help in constructing an additional 2,376 housing units for PNP personnel. (Senate hearing, Nov.16, 2017)