Government News Analysis

When rights go wrong

Philippine Commission on Human Rights

This week, following a landslide vote in the Philippine House of Representatives – 119 for; 32 against – to slash the budget of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) from its current PHP749 million to just PHP1,000, Liberal Party politicians and their friends in the global human-rights community are going apoplectic.

They’re protesting that the “independence” of the Commission is under threat. However, what they actually fear – though daren’t say – is that a potent and forceful pro-Liberal Party power base is being neutered. For by removing the purse, Congress would largely remove the authority – for all practical purposes – of an agency steeped in Liberal Party agenda-politics which has been weaponised to take down the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte.

The fact is there’s nothing independent about the way this body has been run for the past 10 years, let alone the last 14 months since Duterte’s election. The CHR’s Liberal credentials aren’t the elephant in the room, they are the room. The Liberals, meanwhile, continue to maintain the façade of the CHR’s independence in the hope of enraging the public as once again they use it to fight Duterte. Here’s what they’ve said so far.

First, Liberal Party stalwart, Edcel Lagman – head of the pretentiously sounding “Magnificent 7”, an anti-Duterte bloc of House lawmakers – said of those who approved the new budget: “[they’re] virtually imposing the death penalty on a constitutionally created and mandated independent office”.

Next, Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that the budget cut was “part of the Duterte administration’s attempt to prevent independent institutions to check its abuses”.

And Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings – like Edcel and Kine, a strong vocal critic of Duterte – who referred to the cut as “reprehensible and unconscionable,” went on to say this: “The people of the Philippines deserve a strong independent human rights institution able to monitor, investigate, and report on human rights violations, protect victims and their families, and hold the powerful to account for their abuses of international human rights standards”.

Certainly everyone would agree that the Philippines deserves a “strong independent human rights institution” – the only problem is that’s not what it’s got. The CHR is virtually an unapologetic Liberal Party lackey – from its credentials to its agenda. Take a look.

The current chairman, or commissioner, and his two predecessors were all recipients of public office appointments by former Liberal president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and, like it or not, personally have strong allegiances both to him and to the Liberal Party.

The present incumbent, Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon (photo), was Director General of the Liberal Party from 2008-2011; furthermore, he was Political Director of the party’s successful 2010 National Electoral Campaign which brought Aquino to power.

Aquino kept him on at the Office of the President with a political-affairs brief that ran from 2011 to 2014. This followed a short stint at the government’s Bases Conversion Development Authority from 2010 to 2011 where he served as a board member. Aquino passed him the CHR chairmanship in 2015.

Gascon first emerged as a Liberal activist following the assassination of Aquino’s father, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Snr on the tarmac of Manila Airport on 21 August 1983. At the University of the Philippines – as chairman of the Student Council – he became a protest organiser for student bodies and was quickly noticed by Aquino’s widow, Corazon (the mother of “Noynoy”), who became president of the Philippines following the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

That same year, she appointed Gascon as the youngest member of the Constitutional Commission which drafted the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Four years later he was named as the youth-sector representative to the country’s 8th Congress.

Formerly on the board of Amnesty International Philippine Section, he sits on the Human Rights Committee of Liberal International – a global federation of liberal political parties. Other organisations with which he’s connected include: Social Liberals & Democrats for the Advancement of Reforms; the National Institute for Policy Studies, a Liberal think tank for which he was executive director from 1987 to 2002, and LIBERTAS, the civil-liberties lawyers network, for which he was executive director from 2005 to 2008.

He was also a former fellow of De la Salle University’s Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance, named after the late husband of the current vice president and Liberal Party chairman, Leni Robredo. Jesse Robredo was Aquino’s Interior and Local Government Minister from 2010 until his death in a plane crash in 2012.

In short, “Chito” Gascon’s Liberal credentials are self-evident. And it’s little wonder he’s seen as pursuing a pro-Liberal Party programme at the CHR.

His predecessor was Etta Rosales who served as the CHR chair from 2010 to 2015 and her Leftist credentials are virtually impeccable. A former teacher, she joined Aquino’s Liberal Party fold after serving three terms in the House as the party-list representative of the progressive-Left Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party (ACAP).

She’s also a founder of the hard-Left party list Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and was a formed chairman of the now-defunct Partido ng Bayan, or People’s Party – a precursor of the present-day left-wing-nationalist Bayan Muna. ACAP, ACT and Bayan Muna are all fiercely critical of Duterte and their congressional representatives ally themselves to the Liberal Party both in the House and the Senate.

Aquino naturally warmed to Rosales who’s been a tireless anti-Marcos campaigner since the late president’s overthrow in 1986. On 1 September 2010, he appointed her to the CHR chair. That appointment was supported by then-ACAP House representative and now senator, Risa Hontiveros, another of Duterte’s staunchest critics.

At the time of Rosales’s appointment, Hontiveros said this: “[Rosales] is more than qualified for the post. The truth is, she is the perfect replacement for [now senator, Leila] De Lima’s superb endeavor as the former head of the human rights commission”.

And that brings us to the third Liberal occupant of the CHR chair, Leila De Lima – the most tenacious and vitriolic of all Duterte’s political foes. De Lima, who was arrested on serious drugs-profiteering charges in February and is presently in the custody of the Philippine National Police at its Camp Crame headquarters in Quezon City, is Liberal Party to the core.

She was appointed to lead the Commission by Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – though any loyalty she might have had to her was quickly forgotten after Aquino made her his Justice Minister in 2010.

A member of Aksyon Demokratiko – a centre-Left, progressive-Liberal political group – she embraced Aquino’s Liberal Party fully in 2010 after Aksyon signed a coalition agreement with the Liberal Party to support Aquino’s run for the presidency. And she became one of its – and his – most loyal servants.

Aquino wanted to break Arroyo and remove her from the political stage. De Lima was only too willing to provide her services, pursuing her former boss like a Rottweiler with the scent of blood in its nostrils. And she succeeded, hounding her to her arrest and five years incarceration at the Veterans Memorial Medical Venter in Quezon City.

Her next Aquino target was Supreme Court Chief Justice, Renato Corona. Here she added her weight to Aquino’s campaign to denounce Corona publicly and she gave testimony against him at his impeachment trial.

Aquino wanted the chief justice gone for two reasons; first he was an Arroyo loyalist and second, because in 2011 his Supreme Court had deemed that Aquino’s family-owned 6,400-hectare sugar estate, Hacienda Luisita at Tarlac in Luzon, should be awarded to its tenant farmers under the agrarian reform programme.

All three CHR chairmen are vehemently anti-Duterte. Anti-Marcosism is another enduring trait they all share. De Lima has been trying to nail the current president since her time as head of the Commission – in 2009, she released a report which she claimed confirmed “the systematic practice of extrajudicial killings” by the so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS) which she further alleged was organised by Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City.

Subsequent investigations by the Office of the Ombudsman rejected that report’s findings. Not to be deterred, however, in March “Chito” Gascon’s CHR announced that it would be forming a new team to look into Duterte’s links to the DDS.

Meanwhile, in March, Etta Rosales told the press that Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law in the southern island of Mindanao – following the seizing of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur by Islamic State-linked militants – was unnecessary. In her considered view the police and military were capable of handling the situation.

What happens next regarding the Commission’s budget depends on what happens when it comes to be deliberated on by the Senate. Liberal members and their affiliates there have already sworn to restore it – Liberal senator Bam Aquino and Liberal Party ally, Francis Escudero, leading the charge.

In the event of any alternative proposal by the Senate, the matter will then be dealt with by a bicameral conference committee. In any event, it looks like the CHR budget will be slashed – it’s just a matter of by how much.

Whether that will encourage it to de-politicise itself, however, is another matter entirely. Given its history that could be a hard habit to kick. After all, “independent” might sound good but if the CHR is to retain its effectiveness as a Liberal Party resource – attacking the party’s political enemies and shielding its party friends – it’s not really an option.

This story has some way to run as the wider Liberal extended family rush to the Commission’s defence. Adding their voices to condemn the budget-cut decision are VP Robredo; Aquino spokeman, Edwin Lacierda; Manila Auxiliary Bishop, Broderick Pabillo, and Balanga Bishop Ruperto Santos. All are Duterte detractors.

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