‘Fight Drugs, Love Life’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - August 31, 2017 - 4:00pm

The die is cast as far as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairman Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon is concerned. The 30-year old constitutionally created body is headed to a certain fate in the remaining term of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. As he sees it, Gascon is very certain the CHR is up for abolition now that the administration allies of President Duterte at the 17th Congress have started the ball rolling to carry out Charter change (Cha-cha).

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 extrajudicial killings and summary executions in President Duterte’s war against illegal drugs.

Attending our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday at Café Adriatico in Malate, Manila, Gascon disclosed he got word that President Duterte and the leaders of both chambers of Congress agreed to frontload the bill on the shift to federalism under their common legislative agenda for the second regular sessions of Congress. Formerly active as a Liberal Party card-bearing member, Gascon gathered the plebiscite for the Cha-cha amendments would be timed along with the rescheduling of the barangay and SK elections 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 Tuesday when these 27 priority bills were chosen and identified. In a press briefing a day after the LEDAC meeting, Speaker Pantaleon 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.

Alvarez proposed for the two chambers to begin meeting as a Con-Ass starting early next year. 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.

However, it may not actually be feasible. It is not even clear if the House and the Senate, assembled as a Con-Ass, could finish working on a new Constitution by next year, since lawmakers would already be preparing and campaigning for the May, 2019 mid-term elections. And also, both Alvarez and Pimentel are up for re-election. 

So by all estimates, Gascon should not worry about the CHR being abolished any time sooner. The 53-year-old Gascon was appointed in 2015 as CHR chairman and has a fixed term of seven years ending in 2022 yet.

His immediate concern though was the Speaker’s threat to cut to zero the proposed CHR budget for 2018 of P670 million. If the Speaker’s threat is carried out, such zero budget would effectively abolish the CHR. For this year, according to Gascon, the CHR has a P720-million budget.

Gascon impressed upon us at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay media forum 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.

Gascon disclosed he was happy to finally get to sit down with Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa last Tuesday at Camp Crame along with the rest of the five-man CHR and attended also by acting Interior Secretary Catalino Cuy.

Gascon holds on to the promise of the PNP they will give CHR copies of each case folders of alleged “nanlaban” cases of drug suspects killed in police operations, including the murder of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos in Caloocan City.

The CHR chief quoted the homily during the mass for Kian celebrated by Bishop Pablo “Ambo” Virgilio David who called for a “Stop the killing. Start the healing.”

Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) chairman (retired Gen.) Dionisio Santiago who was also a guest panelist in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay, could not agree more with the Bishop’s call about the serious problem on illegal drugs in our country being sidetracked by allegations of EJKs committed by policemen. The only conflict lies, Santiago noted, is on the manner by which the presidential instructions were being carried out by policemen down the ranks.

Santiago announced the DDB has come up with a program that entails the distribution of decals and stickers “Fight Drugs, Love Life” to inculcate positive approach in addressing the twin problems of drugs and EJKs. It would be a sign of support if people will put on these stickers and decals at their homes or in their vehicles, the DDB chief cited.

Santiago, however, believes the Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency (PDEA) should be the primary supervising body in the anti-drugs campaign as mandated by Republic Act (RA) 9165 which created it. The DDB, as mandated by RA 9165 is the policy-making body chaired by the President.

President Duterte appointed 70-year-old Santiago as DDB chairman a month ago. He ran but lost his senatorial bid in last year’s elections. Had he won, Santiago said he would have strongly work for the amendments of Republic Act 9165 that created the PDEA to really make it as the sole government agency in charge of all anti-illegal drugs operations, with the PNP and other law enforcement bodies as support agencies only.

Santiago welcomed the appointment of outgoing PNP provincial chief Gen. Aaron Aquino as new PDEA chief vice Isidro Lapeña who was transferred to become the new Customs Bureau commissioner replacing Nicanor Faeldon. Santiago noted Aquino is closely identified with Manila Arch. Luis Antonio Tagle. “So he won’t have any problem here with CHR,” Santiago joked. Poker-faced Gascon gave a wry smile. Incidentally, Gascon was aided by a cane because of a diabetic wound in his right foot, prompting veteran journalist Sol Vanzi to joke: “Gascon with his baston!”

Santiago invited the CHR chief to join the DDB launching next month of the slogan campaign “Fight Drugs, Love Life” to show also their support to such a worthy cause.

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