MANILA - As tropical depression "Maring" battered parts of Luzon Tuesday afternoon, a different storm brewed at the Batasan Pambansa as congressmen voted to give the Commission of Human Rights a P1,000 budget in one of the most contentious votes in the 17th Congress.
The debate began with a motion by 1SAGIP Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, who pointed out that the CHR has failed to bring justice to the 44 policemen killed in a botched anti-terror operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao in 2015.
Cebu Rep Raul del Mar, sponsor of the CHR budget, replied that the commission only looked into the human rights aspect of the operation while other details were left to other investigative bodies.
But Marcoleta responded, "The CHR should at least have granted immunity from prosecution to any persons whose testimony is necessary or contingent to the truth.”
Their exchange continued thus:
Del Mar: No one person asked the CHR for immunity.
Marcoleta: Does President Duterte have human rights?
Del Mar: Everyone [does], Your Honor.
Marcoleta: Does CHR think that the human rights of President Duterte was violated by New York Times?
Del Mar: "No, your honor… The journalist who wrote the editorial have freedom of expression and secondly public officials are held to abide by the standards set in our Constitution on human rights?”
Marcoleta: CHR was not concerned at all when the NY Times asked the world condemnation of the President?”
Del Mar: The CHR is there doing its job and cannot respond to each and every statement that is made. This is fundamental if we respect everybody’s right, human rights, the more we defend the President’s human rights.
Marcoleta: What law created the CHR?
Del Mar: The Constitution itself under the provisions you have just cited on the provisions of the functions of the CHR in Sec 17 and so if I may quote… There is hereby created an independent office called the commission on human rights.
Marcoleta: You were mentioning EO 163 which was dated May 5, 1987. Is this the basis you're referring to?
Del Mar: The Constitution is the basis... EO 163 is the implementing legislation.
Marcoleta: The EO was issued May 5, 1987. It is very clear the President of the Philippines at that time has no more legislative powers.
It should be Congress which created the CHR. It is not correct to say that because the Constitution mentioned the CHR… it is already created. How can we appropriate budget to an agency which has not been validly created?
Marcoleta then moved to "assign a P1000 budget to the CHR," which was seconded by Floor Leader Rimpy Bondoc.
Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice objected to the motion. He also demanded a chance to explain his objection, backed by Del Mar and Buhay Party List Rep. Lito Atienza.
Amid the flurry of voices speaking at the same time, Presiding Officer Eric Singson appeared confused and announced the resulting of a vote even before one can be taken.
"The ayes have it…session suspended,” Singson said.
The congressmen then huddled, led by Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas.
After the break, Bondoc allowed Atienza, Del Mar and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman to explain their objections.
Atienza said, “Kinakailangan pong ipaliwanag namin ito. Mali-mali po ang mga sinabi ng Kagalang-galang na Marcoleta, punong puno ng depekto.
"Pati pangulo ng bansa, idepensa ng CHR, napakalabo noon. Pag ito po inabolish, wala na po pupuntahan ng bansa 'pagkat ang problema, violations of human rights… it should be given maybe P2 billion to function properly. This should not be abolished. It should be strengthened.”
Lagman meanwhile said the CHR has no jurisdiction over non-state parties, but only offenses committed by the state and agents of the state.
For his part, Del Mar said: “We used to threaten agencies with reducing their annual budget to P1 or zero. This 1,000 [pesos] must be the adjustment to inflation. It’s ridiculous. It involves an agency created by the Constitution… Seriously, can Congress legally go against a clear purpose and intent of the Constitution?"
"P1000 is practically abolishing the CHR. CHR can no longer function on such a ridiculous amount. We are abolishing the CHR which we do not have the power to do so."
Those in favor of the P1,000 budget were eventually asked to rise while those opposed stayed seated.
In the end, 119 voted in favor of the P1000 budget while 32 opposed it.
Fariñas said the House cannot give a breakdown of the list of how the congressmen voted.
“There is no such record as voting was by ayes and nays, which was ultimately done with members standing to vote when the nays challenged the ruling of the chair that the ayes had it,” he explained.
The vote however does not automatically slash the CHR budget because the 2018 national budget still has to be approved by the House on 3rd and final reading, and also by the Senate and the President.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has backed CHR's budget cut due to its criticism of the war on drugs.
Farinas meanwhile said funds intended for the CHR could be allocated somewhere else.
Congressmen have until Friday to submit their amendments to the budget before its 3rd and final reading next week.