What Price is the Philippines Human Rights Commission Budget Reprieve?

Red Thaddeus D. Miguel

I don’t care about human rights, believe me.” So said Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte (pictured left) whose “war on drugs” has not slowed down despite risks of weakening the government. According to the Philippine National Police, 3,850 Filipinos have been killed in these police operations in the 15 months to September 2017. This is on top of 1,398 confirmed drug related homicides recorded to March 2017, and a 31% rise in average daily murders throughout the country.

In the past year the Commission on Human Rights, formed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution to protect the Filipinos from human rights abuses by the State, has been investigating these cases. In recent months however President Duterte has contemplated abolishing the Commission, which is Southeast Asia’s oldest human rights institution.

On September 12, 2017, the House of Representatives voted to allocate a budget of 1,000 Philippine Pesos (USD20) to the Commission on Human Rights for 2018; 119 representatives voted in favor, and 32 were against the motion. However, 10 days later members of the House of Representatives reversed the decision and restored the Commission’s budget after the Chair of the Commission met with the leaders of the Congress. These reports question the autonomy of the members of the House of Representatives in a political environment that is now rife with undercurrents of threats to reputation, and district-level budget cuts lacking transparency. For example, the President asked the Commission’s Chairman whether he was “gay or pedophile” after the Commission led investigations into the deaths of male teenagers who were shot during the police’s anti-drug operations.

On rescinding their decision, many felt that the human rights in the country prevailed. However, questions remain as to what agreements the Commission on Human Rights entered into with the House of Representatives to have their budget restored. There will be much interest from all sides in the Commission’s future selection of cases to investigate.

Increasing reports of human rights violations, and these recent funding decisions, continue to feed the atmosphere of fear in the Philippines. In December 2016 a survey revealed that nearly eight out of ten Filipinos are worried that they, or someone they know, would fall victim to extrajudicial killings. A survey in mid 2017 found that 75% of people in Metro Manila agree that some drug suspects are killed despite having already surrendered.

These risk perceptions cause physical dangers. Fearing for their lives, Filipinos may make decisions that increase their risk for actual harm. For example, gun sales in the Philippines are again starting to increase.

Though the police force has been taking steps to clean its image, having politicians vote for a USD20 budget for the Commission on Human Rights, and take it back when it is satisfied with the Commission’s future plans, is not helping restore a sense of confidence in a fair or transparent judicial system in the Philippines. President Duterte’s open lack of regard for human rights is reverberating throughout the entire country.

Red Thaddeus D. Miguel, MD, MBA, is University Researcher in the Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies at the National Institutes of Health – University of the Philippines Manila

Please address correspondence to the author c/o Red Thaddeus D. Miguel, Room 105 Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies, National Institutes of Health – University of the Philippines Manila, 623 Pedro Gil Street, Ermita 1000 Manila, Philippines, email: red.upmanila@gmail.com

Photo credit: Alaric A. Yanos