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House softens stand on CHR budget cut

Filipinos have taken to social media to express their anger over the slashing of the CHR budget, saying their tax should be given to the constitutional body instead of funding the war on drugs or going to the salaries of lawmakers who voted for the cut.
 

MANILA, Philippines —  Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said yesterday he and his colleagues are open to giving the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a bigger budget for 2018, just three days after the House of Representatives reduced its proposed P678-million funding to just P1,000.

Some senators, including Panfilo Lacson who heads the finance subcommittee in charge of the funding for several agencies, have said they would restore the commission’s budget at the risk of having a deadlock with the House and having the current outlay recycled.

Alvarez and other House members have been receiving flak for Tuesday night’s vote: 119-32 for giving CHR P1,000 for 2018.

“We can discuss that with the Senate, but we cannot accept what they want. We respect the Senate, but what they wish will not happen. That’s all what I can say on that issue,” he said in Filipino in a radio interview.

Lacson said he was “accepting the challenge” to fight for the CHR budget.

Last year, he realigned P8.3 billion intended for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to the free tuition program in state universities and colleges, which started the funding for free college education.

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Alvarez criticized the CHR for allegedly not doing its job of “protecting the human rights of all, not only those of criminals but of their victims as well.”

He said under the Constitution, the commission is empowered to “investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights.”

The Speaker also claimed that the agency has not spoken against the terrorist activities of the Maute group in Marawi City, an argument that was supported by Rep. Rodante Marcoleta of party-list group Sagip.

Alvarez said CHR chairman Chito Gascon had visited detained opposition Sen. Leila de Lima but not other detainees.

Opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay, one of those who opposed the huge reduction in the commission’s funding, said Marcoleta and like-minded House members apparently do not understand the mandate of CHR.

Lagman said the framers of the Constitution created the agency to protect people from human rights violations done “by the state or its agents” and not by terrorists, criminals or rebels, which are handled by the police and other law enforcement agencies.

In his radio interview, Alvarez said he does not care about the criticisms he and the House are getting.

“What is important to us is that we are doing our job. Anyway, our constituents are not the social media, not the media, but our districts and the nation,” he stressed.

Aside from the 32 who opposed the move to cut the CHR budget to a mere P1,000 next year, former Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. of Quezon City, Vilma Santos-Recto of Batangas, Ruffy Biazon of Muntinlupa and Teodoro Baguilat Jr. of Ifugao said they would have also voted against it if they were able to attend Tuesday’s session.

“I was not present and I did not vote. I would have objected to the P1,000 budget for CHR,” Belmonte said.

His nephew, Jose Christopher Belmonte, representative of Quezon City’s sixth district, was among the 32 who voted against shutting down the CHR.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is also against the budget cut, pointing out that the CHR is a vital government agency that keeps government officials in check.

“I hope they (Congress) will reconsider their decision, unless they want CHR abolished. They have to support it because it’s a constitutional body, its head could not even be removed or impeached,” Lorenzana said.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II yesterday believes it would be good for the agency if chairman Gascon resigns “if his resignation would help ease (the pressure exerted by Congress on the CHR).”

“We know who appointed him and that is why he would only look at one side of the situation,” he added.

In 2015, former president Benigno Aquino III appointed Gascon, a human-rights activist who previously served as director general of the Liberal Party (LP), as CHR chairman. His seven-year term ends in 2022.

When asked if he favored the slashing of the CHR budget for 2018, Aguirre said: “This has to be really considered. But this has to be an eye opener for members of the CHR. They still have a chance since the Senate will still decide. I believe that the Human Rights Commission should continue but they should do what is right.”

He believed that the CHR should have bothered to go to Bulacan to help the relatives of Aurora Carlos, her daughter Estrella and three grandchildren who were raped and killed inside their house in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan last June 27 and condemned the brutal slaying.

“They should have protected the human rights of everybody. What is the difference of these minors who were killed by drug traffickers and the minors killed by the police scalawags? Nothing. They are both innocents, but the leadership focus only sees one side. They do not protect the human rights of everybody,” Aguirre added.

Department of the Interior and Local Government Assistant Secretary Epimaco Densing III also called for Gascon’s resignation, claiming that the latter has been using the CHR as a propaganda machine for the opposition Liberal Party. He said he first called the resignation of Gascon as early as November 2016.

– With Evelyn Macairan, Cecille Suerte Felipe

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