Backfire
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 13, 2017 - 4:00pm

The House of Representatives has never been known as the bastion of statesmen. But that chamber demeans itself by reducing the budget of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to a thousand pesos from the original request of P678 million.

There are those, to be sure, who might think that P678 million is too large a sum for an agency that does basically nothing. There are those who think the CHR has been badly led, infusing partisanship in its work. Then there are those who think the agency is a useless ornament, a token nod to the nation’s expressed commitment to uphold human rights.

Whatever the critics of the CHR might think, the agency in question is a constitutionally mandated body. It is constitutional dictate to keep this commission operational, perfunctory as its duties might sometimes seem. By cutting the commission’s budget share to only a thousand pesos, the House basically shuts down the agency.

This move by the House, futile as it might be, simply calls international attention to the sad state of human rights in this country. The UN has criticized the move. The diminution of the CHR’s budget share merely provides critics of the Duterte administration more ammunition with which to clamor against what they feel is the early onset of tyrannical rule and the serious erosion of the rule of law.

The CHR, to be sure, might seem like a nuisance, harping on the sidelines of a necessary “war against drugs.”  But this commission has a place in our universe. It may not be a place of compelling power, but it is an indispensable reference point for achieving the just, nurturing society we all want to have.

Not too many citizens interact with the CHR. It is not a frontline agency. But those who do are usually victims of some unspeakable transgression committed by supposed agents of the law that other public agencies might not be equipped to be of help.

Of course the CHR tends to focus on the acts of agents of the state. The entire epistemology of human rights rests on the need to check the powers of the state and ensure citizens a zone of protection against official abuse. It does not make sense to ask the CHR to take up the violent acts committed by drug addicts against, say, their own parents. That is the job of the police.

It is almost a matter of categorical imperative. Human rights advocacy always pits advocates against the state. It is the measure of a government’s commitment to the rule of law that it protects the operation of an agency such as the CHR.

Because of the nature of their work, human rights advocates are often pitted against other agencies of the state. The relationship with government is often adversarial, as is the relationship between a truly free press and the power wielders.

Like the CHR, a free press might seem like a constant nuisance to those who prefer to rule without dissent. If the CHR is effectively neutralized by budgetary fiat, what is there to protect a free press?

It is already bad form for a government criticized for wanton disregard of human rights to go ahead and crush the human rights advocates as well. The congressmen do not do government a favor by voting as they did on the CHR budget. They conspired to render all official pronouncements about commitment to respect human rights hollow.

The House just pulled the rug from under all official pretenses about the rule of law. The legislators have become unwitting parties to those who claim the country has now fallen under a tyranny.

From all indications, the majority of senators appear inclined to restore the CHR’s original budget – and even increase it as a rebuke to the brainless action of the House.

If the House insists on its budget cut, it risks a confrontation with the Senate. That confrontation could bog down the approval of the entire national appropriations act, leaving government without a budget for next year.

The House could not possibly win such a confrontation. It does not have an armory of justifications for taking the action that they did. The CHR may not be the most popular institution around, but there seems to be no public support for lynching it.

More important, a confrontation between the House and the Senate will be a contest between plain pique and vindictiveness on one hand and the properly appreciated demands of statesmanship. In such a confrontation, statesmanship (and thus properly mustered reason) will be on the side of the Senate.

CHR chair Chito Gascon described the House action as “capricious.” That is plain to see.

What Gascon has to do is to demonstrate the CHR could do a better job than it has done. The charge that the commission is out to do a hatchet job on the administration is not entirely without basis.

President Duterte’s comment that the House action may be subject to “review” increases the possibility this completely unthinkable budget cut would be reversed. The President seems to understand the unhealthy repercussions of what the House has done.

This is not the first time this House acted irresponsibly and recklessly. The litany of bizarre behaviors by this House is long. This is not the end of its proclivities.

The CHR budget cut, however, opens an opportunity for the saner sections of this government to draw the line on sobriety and statesmanship. Cutting the CHR budget is impolitic at best, plainly stupid at worst.

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