Although unlikely to pass, the Philippine House of Representatives’ vote to allocate nothing but PhP1,000 (US$20) to the Commission on Human Rights sent waves of public disgust and outrage over what many believe is a retaliation against the agency’s very open rebuke of the Duterte Administration’s infamous “war on drugs.”
A constitutionally-created agency mandated to protect the Filipino people against abuses by those in power, the Commission on Human Rights has been consistent not only on its criticism of drug-related police operations but also of what appears to be a state-encouraged vigilantism — which, combined, have allegedly claimed the lives of over 13,000 suspected drug dealers and users.
In retaliation, as President Rodrigo Duterte seemed to have admitted by saying the CHR “had it coming” by being too critical of the war on drugs – the administration-aligned House of Representatives on Sept. 12 voted to slash the agency’s budget from $13 million to $20 for fiscal year 2018.
The Philippine Senate was quick to condemn the House’s move and vowed to restore the rights agency’s $13 million budget as proposed by Duterte himself, although the president — along with his staunch supporters — never tried to hide his displeasure of the commission’s stand on his war on drugs.
The Rights Commission has publicly questioned and vowed to investigate human rights abuses resulting from the Philippine National Police’s anti-drug operations, which many said were aimed to target the poor.
In fact, the Human Rights Watch, in a March 2017 report, stated that the victims of drug-related killings by the police or unidentified gunmen were poor — with the exception of a middle-class victim who appears to have been killed as a result of mistaken identity — in all but one of the cases it investigated.
“[M]any were suspected drug users, not dealers at all. Almost all of the victims were either unemployed or worked menial jobs, including as rickshaw drivers or porters, and lived in slum neighborhoods or informal settlements,” the HRW report added.
Of the 13,000 reported drug war-related killings, however, the National Police owns up to only 3,811 deaths. The rest of the victims were gunned down by civilian vigilantes who apparently felt empowered by Duterte’s previous statements encouraging police and civilians to “kill criminals.”
The PNP’s official tally for the period covering July 1, 2016 to August 29, 2017 puts the total number of anti-drug operations to 70,854, during which 107,156 suspected drug dealers and users had been arrested.
In a televised address on June 6, 2016, Duterte said, “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun ... you have my support. Shoot him [the drug dealer] and I’ll give you a medal.”
In recent weeks, at least three teenaged boys were allegedly killed in police operations – Kian Delos Santos, 17; Carl Angelo Arnaiz, 19; and Reynaldo de Guzman, 14.
Delos Santos was allegedly killed by police during their anti-drug operation in a Manila suburb, while Arnaiz reportedly exchanged gun shots with cops after trying to rob a taxi driver. De Guzman was last seen with Arnaiz; his body has yet to be found.
The bodies of two more teenaged boys had been recently discovered in northern Philippines last week, one of them, initially suspected to be that of 14-year-old De Guzman but subsequent DNA tests proved otherwise, sustained 30 stab wounds.
Public reaction over the House of Representative’s move to practically defund the rights commission in 2018 has been nothing but outrage.
Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement that depriving the Philippines Commission of an appropriate budget effectively prevents it from delivering on its mandate.
“[It] is a crucial institution for the Philippines: for human rights protection, the rule of law, accountability. It cannot deliver on its mandate without an appropriate budget, particularly at a time when it is confronted with allegations of massive human rights violations throughout the country, and including, but not only, in the context of the ill-advised , destructive ‘war on drug’,” Callamard said.
She added that “the people of the Philippines deserves a strong independent human rights institution able to monitor, investigate, and report on human rights violations, protect victims and their families, and hold the powerful to account for their abuses of international human rights standards. Instead they are getting a ‘war on drugs’ which, by the President’s own account, has failed to curtail addiction rates, while creating a climate of fear and insecurity, feeding impunity, and undermining the constitutional fabrics of the Country.”
“If the Philippines Congress is looking for public money being wasted, damaging and hurting the Philippines society, this is it.”
Filipino-Australian journalist Cher Jimenez-Cayabyab posted on Facebook, “Now expect more innocent people to die from this government’s senseless drug war policy. And when it’s your loved one’s turn to become this government’s next victim there’ll be no CHR to help you.”
Celia Lamkin of the Global Coalition of Filipinos for Good Governance said the move is tantamount to a concerted effort aimed at abolishing the Commission. “This is really unacceptable.
Manila-based journalist Ernie Reyes said the congressmen’s vote to allocate a 20-dollar budget each for the Commission on Human Rights and the National Commission for Indigenous People speaks volumes about the legislators’ stand on extrajudicial killings.