Senators hit House over P1,000 CHR budget

MANILA, Philippines – Senators vowed to restore the proposed 2018 budget of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) as they opposed the decision of the House of Representatives to give the constitutional body a measly P1,000 budget for next year.

Senator Francis Pangilinan dismissed the House decision as "nonsense." Pangilinan said they would make sure that the CHR’s proposed P678 million budget for 2018 would be approved even if it means delaying the passage of the proposed 2018 national budget.

“Hindi kami papayag sa Senado sa inaprubahan ng House na P1000 budget para sa CHR. Tututulan namin nang maigi ang pag-apruba nito sa Senado kahit pa hindi maipasa ang 2018 budget at ma-re-enact and 2017 budget. Kalokohan ito,” Pangilinan said in a statement.

(We in the Senate will not agree to a P1,000-budget for the CHR, as approved in the House. We will strongly oppose its approval in the Senate even if this means the non-passage of the 2018 budget and the reenactment of the 2017 budget. This is nonsense.)

Pangilinan inferred that the recent House vote was a sign that it would choose to side with Malacañang should there be a joint session on charter change.

“Ngayon, alam na natin ano ang mangyayari sa bansa natin kapag nag-cha-cha at itulak ang voting jointly na tig-isang boto lang ang mga senador at kongresista. Derecho na tayo sa diktadura,” Pangilinan said.

(Now, we know what would happen in the country when there is a joint vote on charter change and senators and representatives have one vote each. We'll go straight to a dictatorship.)

Senator Risa Hontiveros said the Senate will “convince” the House to restore the CHR budget. She also slammed Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez’s call for CHR chair Chito Gascon to resign in exchange for the full budget of the consitutional body.

Both Pangilinan and Hontiveros are members of the opposition bloc.

“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.

Gascon said the commission is hoping that "reason, necessity, and rational minds will prevail both in the Senate and in the bicameral committee," where both the House and the Senate would reconcile differences between their versions. (READ: Slides and Ladders: Understand the budget process)

The CHR, which has repeatedly slammed drug-related killings under the Duterte administration, has been the subject of criticism from President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies. When the CHR was headed by detained Senator Leila de Lima in 2009, it investigated Duterte for his alleged involvement in the Davao Death Squad.

Duterte had earlier said that Gascon had overstepped his bounds in actively investigating human rights abuses in the Philippines, angering lawmakers in the process.

"When you are an investigating agency, and you are empowered to investigate... itong gagong Gascon na ito, nakikialam pa doon sa during the incident. Huwag kang pumasok diyan (this stupid Gascon, he keeps meddling during the incidents. Stop meddling)!" the President earlier said.

Senate to restore CHR budget

Senators are also positive that the chamber would restore the full allocation of the agency for 2018, as the CHR is mandated by the 1987 Constitution.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto also said the CHR may even need more funds with the spate of extrajudicial killings in the government’s bloody drug war.

“The Senate wll surely restore the CHR budget. The CHR is a constitutonal body mandated by the constitution to protect our human rights. It may even need more resources considering the number of EJKs,” Recto said.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said the House decision effectively abolishes the agency and violates the Constitution. He added that the CHR 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.

Other administration senators shared the same view.

“The CHR is a constitutional imperative and a necessity, however inconvenient it may be for some....I will fight to restore its budget,” said Senator Francis Escudero in a tweet.

“Am quite certain the 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,” Senator Juan Edgardo Angara said in a tweet.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, sponsor of the CHR budget, has said he would stand the Senate's ground on the matter. He also questioned where the House realigned the slashed funds amounting to P677 million.

The House proceedings are in stark contrast to that of the Senate, as the Senate finance committee approved the proposed CHR budget amounting to P678 million, lower than 2017's P749 million.

This includes P649.484 million for the CHR alone and P28.565 million for the Human Rights Violations Victims' Memorial Commission, according to the office of Senator Loren Legarda, the committee chairperson. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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