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CHR here to stay

Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairman Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon did not expect the planned abolition of this constitutional body to come any sooner. In fact, the last time we talked to him, Gascon confirmed his worst fears on the fate of CHR under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte would come only when the proposed Charter Change (Cha-cha) goes underway.

Given the bitter criticisms by the CHR on the unabated rise of reported extra-judicial killings (EJKs), especially those involving suspects as young as teen-agers, an angry President Duterte went ballistics against Gascon in character assassination language.

The 53-year-old Gascon was appointed in 2015 as CHR chairman and has a fixed term of seven years ending in 2022 yet. Gascon’s immediate concern is not Cha-cha but how to survive the House of Representatives’ approval last week of the proposed CHR budget for 2018 of P670 million that was reduced to P1,000.

For this year, according to Gascon, the CHR has P720-million budget which included the appropriations of P100 million for the infrastructure expenses of the Commission’s on-going rehabilitation of its building. According to him, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) actually gave the CHR a higher budget for next year.

The CHR will unveil a new monument in honor of the late human rights and democracy icon, the late senator Jose “Pepe” Diokno to mark tomorrow’s anniversary of the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21,1972. Diokno, whose second term as senator was cut short when martial law was declared, established the Free Legal Assistance Group that up to now provide assistance to victims of human rights abuses.

It is not clear though if the monument – erected at the commission’s head office in Commonwealth Avenue, in Quezon City-- was paid out of that CHR infrastructure budget. Gascon told me earlier the infrastructure budget will fund rehabilitation of the building being occupied by the CHR but is actually owned by the Commission on Audit. According to him, the building was condemned after the earthquake in 1991 and it was retrofitted 20 years ago to make the building safer for occupancy.

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Gascon vows no amount of threats, however, would stop the CHR from performing its constitutional mandate to uphold the universal human rights of every Filipino.

Contrary to critics of CHR, Gascon swore, they take up the cudgels to respect the human rights of every person, whether drug suspects being killed for alleged “nanlaban” incidents with arresting policemen, or cases of beheading of soldiers or policemen or civilians committed by “non-state actors” like the Abu Sayyaf or the Maute terrorists who are not under the control of government authorities.

As Gascon first saw it, he is very certain the CHR will be up for abolition now that the administration allies of President Duterte at the 17th Congress have started the Cha-cha ball rolling under the guise of carrying out the shift to federal system of government.

When we had Gascon as guest of our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay last August 30 at Café Adriatico in Malate, Manila, he disclosed getting words that President Duterte and the leaders of both chambers of the 17th Congress agreed to frontload the Cha-cha bill along with the shift to federalism under their common legislative agenda for the current second regular sessions.

Formerly active as a Liberal Party (LP) card-bearing member, Gascon apparently gathered this information from LP lawmakers, many of whom either changed political color and joined the new ruling administration party PDP-Laban, or became part of the so-called “super majority” coalition in Congress. As he was told, the plebiscite for the Cha-cha amendments would be timed along with the rescheduling of the elections on barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan that would be synchronized in the 2019 mid-term elections.

The agreement to start the Cha-cha bills was reached during the meeting of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) at Malacanang Palace last month. In a press briefing a day after the LEDAC meeting, Speaker Alvarez revealed he would soon meet with Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III to decide when congressmen and senators could convene as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) to draft a new Constitution to change the system of government from unitary-presidential to federal.

Originally, Alvarez had envisioned a draft of a new Charter would be ready by next year and a change in the system of government would be effected by 2019.

So once the Cha-cha starts, Gascon believes the CHR will be the first to be abolished to get it out of the way from standing up against the alleged EJKs and summary executions involving many policemen. Many of these EJKs that the CHR monitored, Gascon noted, were apparently inspired by the public pronouncements on the war against illegal drugs from their Commander-in-chief who keeps telling drug lords: “I will kill you.”

At every opportunity, however, President Duterte clarifies in his public speeches his directives to the police authorities are very clear to shoot only at suspects if their very lives are in danger.

Amid the renewed charges from various human rights groups here and abroad, including the CHR, the President earlier ordered Philippine National Police (PNP) director-general Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa to investigate possible “sabotage” attempts on his illegal drugs campaign.

In another long extemporaneous speech before prosecutors of the Public Attorneys Office last Monday, President Duterte strongly declared: “I never condone extrajudicial killings.” But he expressed willingness to admit having given “kill” orders to confirmed drug lords like the Albuerra Mayor, the Odicta couple, and Mayor Parojinog, all of whom were killed in police operations.

In the same speech last Monday, the President echoed anew his suspicions of apparent attempts to pin him down on these reported EJKs and stall in the process his administration’s gains in the anti-drug war. President Duterte vows no amount of public reprimands by CHR will stop his war on drugs, especially now that the Philippines has already become a “narco-state.”

Notwithstanding its House-approved budget reduced to P1,000 next year and Gascon’s feared abolition of the 30-year-old constitutionally created body, the President reassured the CHR is here to stay and to remain intact, for now.

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