PEOPLE with no sense of history are bound to commit the mistakes of the past. Sadly, many Filipinos elected into the House of Representatives are ignorant of the role of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in a democracy. The House appropriated P1,000 for CHR for 2018. It was a message to its chairman to stop criticizing the war on drugs that has resulted in extrajudicial killings. But the blatant display of legislative coercion sent a chilling effect on civil society.
The provision on CHR was not plucked out of thin air or copied from other countries by the framers of the Constitution. It came from the collective experiences of the Filipino people under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who used the nation’s security forces to trample upon the basic freedoms of the citizens.
While the 1987 Constitution referred to the CHR, for a time there was no legislation that established the agency. Human rights champion Jose W. Diokno, who headed the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, must have counted the establishment of the CHR as one of his legacies to the Filipino people.
I headed the Cebu Alliance for Human Rights, post-Edsa. The anti-communist cadres were creating havoc in Cebu’s hinterlands, with the consent of the military officials affiliated with the Reformed AFP Movement (RAM), whose motive was to weaken the Aquino government and set up a military junta. Those were dangerous times to be known as a human rights advocates.
It was then with urgency that we sought for the establishment of the CHR. With the agency in place, the cause of human rights became that of government and volunteer human rights organizations disappeared. It was just right that government had an agency advocating human rights as enshrined in the constitution.
That human rights violations became less in the years following CHR’s establishment is proof that it has embedded among civil servants the value of life and respect for human rights.
Then came the war on drugs as one of the key programs of President Rodrigo Duterte. The extrajudicial killings came at an alarming rate that even the foreign media took notice. As CHR chairman, Chito Gascon took the issue head-on. For simply doing his job, he earned the ire of the president. And so it came to pass that the president’s supporters in the House of Representatives punished Gascon by appropriating a token amount to the CHR.
These are dangerous times. When the institution tasked to protect human rights is threatened, those who believe and advocate those rights cannot just be bystanders. Already, there are lawyers, students and institutions that have expressed their indignation of the move . But it needs a mass movement, it needs civil society to put a stop to this legislative coercion. We cannot allow a repeat of our harrowing history.