A Constitutional challenge

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies 

The House of Representatives voted (119-32) in an overtly politicized process last Tuesday to give the Commission on Human Rights a budget of P1,000. The House’s decision would paralyze the CHR and prevent it from fulfilling its mandate. While the decision is not yet final, its legal and political implications are resounding.

The 1987 Constitution mandates that “the approved annual appropriations of the [CHR] shall be automatically and regularly released” (Art. XIII, Sec. 17(4)). This stipulation ensures that the CHR will be able to execute its powers and functions as provided for by the Constitution—i.e., the protection, promotion and advocacy of human rights (Art. XIII, Sec. 18). An agency like the CHR can be abolished only through constitutional change. So, instead, the House attempted to “extrajudicially kill” the CHR by exercising its power of the purse.

Can the politics of the majority defy the law of the land? The wisdom of the House decision is questionable, at best. The House has put the Senate, and the bicameral conference committee especially, in the spotlight, where the endorsed budget will be reconciled with that of the Senate.

The political implications are manifold. The House action could send the wrong signal on the kind of change coming under the President’s platform of reestablishing law and order. The budget slash was premised on the CHR’s intense scrutiny of the government’s war on drugs which has resulted in thousands of deaths. The House majority accuses the CHR of protecting criminals and of failing to protect the rights of all Filipinos. In its effort to further justify the budget slash, it has questioned the legality of the CHR’s creation, contending that there is no legislation formally creating the commission. But the CHR was created under the Constitution and became officially organized on May 5, 1987, under Executive Order No. 163 issued by then President Corazon Aquino.

Amid such dynamics, “law and order” could simply mean “no opposition” to the government.

What are the political interests behind the House action? These interests will be the same driving force behind the proposed constitutional change that, incidentally, is being strongly pushed by this administration. We are led to ask: Will a change in constitution truly bring about the country’s economic and development progress? Will these interests be benefited by the abolition of the CHR, among other needed agencies?

Another political consideration is the concept of human rights violations. These violations can only be attributed to the state and its agencies, should they trample upon the people’s civil and political rights. Nonstate actors, like the communist and separatist movements, can be punished under the criminal justice system. The Philippines must revisit its experience under martial rule, which was contemplated by the framers of the 1987 Constitution in deciding to create the CHR. The framers have clarified that the CHR’s jurisdiction should be limited to political and civil rights in order for it to be most effective. Most importantly, the CHR must be independent if it is to be effective in guarding against human rights violations and abuses committed by the government and its agents.

In a nutshell, the CHR was established to safeguard and promote the citizenry’s rights. With the constitutional provisions on human rights, it is the epitome of the democratic success of the Filipino people in their struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. The abolition or even the suppression of the CHR is a democratic reversal and undermines the democratization process that our country has undergone for three decades. The government should view the CHR not as an enemy of the administration but as an institution that plays an active role in the system of checks and balances.

While the House can paralyze CHR operations through the exercise of its power of the purse — should the Senate fail to block the budget slash — we should not lose sight of the fact that the President has the power to veto any item in the General Appropriations Act. The future of the CHR’s budget may depend on who really wields the power: Congress or the President?

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