PHILIPPINES parliamentarians allied with President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday voted to allocate an annual budget of only PHP1,000 (US$19.64) to the national human rights commission, which is investigating the country’s controversial war on drugs.
At least 119 out of 151 lower house members present voted in favour of dramatically cutting the Commission on Human Rights’ budget for 2018.
Critics of the anti-drugs campaign see the move as retaliation for the agency’s criticism of Duterte and efforts to probe thousands of killings over the past 15 months. The president has previously threatened to abolish the body completely.
In a statement, the Commission on Human Rights said it regretted the decision to “undermine our role as a check-and-balance mechanism” which it said it did “without fear or favour, in a non-partisan manner, and as rightfully mandated by the 1987 constitution.”
“[Duterte’s government] have wrongly perceived our role as combative rather than a collaborative effort to bolster Philippine democracy by ensuring that all public officials are honest in the performance of their duties and adhere to universally accepted principles of human rights,” it said.
The rights agency deserved a low budget for being a “useless” body and defending criminals’ rights, the speaker of the house of representatives, Pantaleon Alvarez, said in a television interview.
“If you want to protect the rights of criminals, get your budget from the criminals,” he said.
“It’s that simple. Why should you get budget from the government and yet you are not doing your job?”
Thirty-two minority lawmakers opposed the measure, said Congressman Edcel Lagman, adding that the president’s supporters were “virtually imposing the death penalty on a constitutionally created and mandated independent office”.
The agency requested a budget of PHP1.72 billion (US$33,788,400) for 2018, but the government proposed PHP678 million (US$13,318,930).
On the second reading of the legislation, Congress approved that the figure be slashed to just PHP1,000 pesos, a huge cut from the 2017 budget of PHP749 million (US$14,713,685).
Though the motion still requires another reading and Senate approval, opponents say it is likely to be passed, as Duterte enjoys a supermajority in the two chambers.
The agency has long complained it lacks manpower and resources to fully investigate the killings. Its head, Chito Gascon, said the measly budget was an attempt to force his resignation.
“The principal reason why I cannot resign my office is that to do so is to weaken the institution itself,” Gascon said.
He added: “On pretext, asking me to resign would lead to essentially making the institution forever at the mercy of politics.”
Filipinos are largely supportive of Duterte’s crackdown as a solution to tackling rampant crime stemming from drug addiction.
However, activists say the prime targets have been users and small-time peddlers and accuse police of executing thousands of people. The police reject that and say they kill only in self-defence.
Human rights advocates hope senators will restore the agency’s current budget.
“If we need to go to the Supreme Court on this issue we will consider that as well,” added Gascon.
Lawmakers may have misunderstood the agency’s role, said one representative, Raul del Mar. “We need to be reminded that the CHR’s main function is to curb the excesses and abuses of those in the seat of power,” he said.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard called the move “reprehensible and unconscionable.”
— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) September 12, 2017
Callamard recently described the killing of 17-year-old schoolboy Kian Delos Santos by Manila police as “murder” in a tweet on Aug 25, earning the ire of Duterte who in a separate speech later called her “son of a bitch” and “stupid.”
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said that Duterte had attempted to “vilify, harass and intimidate” those seeking investigation into drug war deaths and was running a “war on accountability.”
Additional reporting by Reuters