Much has been said about the P1,000.00 budget allocated by 119 Congressmen to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Some insist that there is no cause for alarm because it is not yet final. They claim that the Congressmen were only trying to prove a point on a matter of principle, that they are not after the Commission’s Chair but not the Commission itself, etc.
Others stress that the CHR was created by the Constitution itself, particularly Article XIII Sec. 17 (1): “There is hereby created an independent office called the Commission on Human Rights”, and so it does not need an enabling law to exist. Still others, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Police Chief Inspector Jovie Espenido, have said that the CHR must be given the proper budget because it is a necessary component of the principle of checks and balances.
Now what exactly is the principle of checks and balances? It is usually mentioned hand-in-hand with the principle of separation of powers: the Executive has the power of the sword, the Legislative the power of the purse, and the Judiciary the power of the pen. While each one is interdependent- and thus cooperates- with one another, each also checks on the possible abuses of the other.
But Justice Marvic Leonen, in his Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Gonzales v. Office of the President (G.R. No. 196231, January 28, 2014 [En Banc]), emphasized that the principle of checks and balances and the principle of the separation of powers are not limited to the interaction of the powers of the Executive, Legislative, and the Judiciary; both principles also apply to the interaction of the three branches of government with the other constitutional organs, particularly the Constitutional Commissions. He underscored that the principle of checks and balances allows constitutionally enshrined bodies or organs and governmental departments to correct mistakes and prevent excesses done by other branches, and also ensures a degree of cooperation while being clear as to what acts may constitute undue encroachments upon another branch’s or organ’s constitutional duties.
The Supreme Court En Banc, as early as the case of Simon v. Commission on Human Rights (G.R. No. 100150, January 5, 1994) already recognized the duties and mandate of the CHR:
“Recalling the deliberations of the Constitutional Commission, aforequoted, it is readily apparent that the delegates envisioned a Commission on Human Rights that would focus its attention to the more severe cases of human rights violations. Delegate Garcia, for instance, mentioned such areas as the “(1) protection of rights of political detainees, (2) treatment of prisoners and the prevention of tortures, (3) fair and public trials, (4) cases of disappearances, (5) salvagings and hamletting, and (6) other crimes committed against the religious.” While the enumeration has not likely been meant to have any preclusive effect, more than just expressing a statement of priority, it is, nonetheless, significant for the tone it has set. In any event, the delegates did not apparently take comfort in peremptorily making a conclusive delineation of the CHR’s scope of investigatorial jurisdiction. They have thus seen it fit to resolve, instead, that “Congress may provide for other cases of violations of human rights that should fall within the authority of the Commission, taking into account its recommendation.”
The “more severe cases of human rights violations” enumerated above are, by their very nature, those that can only be committed by state forces.
Furthermore, in its Decision in the said Gonzales v. Office of the President, the Supreme Court En Banc recognized the independence of the CHR and the other constitutional bodies, which were intended to be insulated from political pressure to the extent that the absence of “independence” would result in the impairment of their core functions:
“Notably, the Constitution also created an “independent” Commission on Human Rights, although it enjoys a lesser degree of independence since it is not granted fiscal autonomy in the manner fiscal autonomy is granted to the constitutional commissions. The lack of fiscal autonomy notwithstanding, the framers of the 1987 Constitution clearly expressed their desire to keep the Commission independent from the executive branch and other political leaders:
MR. MONSOD. We see the merits of the arguments of Commissioner Rodrigo. If we explain to him our concept, he can advise us on how to reconcile his position with ours. The position of the committee is that we need a body that would be able to work and cooperate with the executive because the Commissioner is right. Many of the services needed by this commission would need not only the cooperation of the executive branch of the government but also of the judicial branch of government. This is going to be a permanent constitutional commission over time. We also want a commission to function even under the worst circumstance when the executive may not be very cooperative. However, the question in our mind is: Can it still function during that time? Hence, we are willing to accept suggestions from Commissioner Rodrigo on how to reconcile this. We realize the need for coordination and cooperation. We also would like to build in some safeguards that it will not be rendered useless by an uncooperative executive.
MR. GARCIA. xxx Very often, when international commissions or organizations on human rights go to a country, the most credible organizations are independent human rights bodies. Very often these are private organizations, many of which are prosecuted, such as those we find in many countries in Latin America. In fact, what we are proposing is an independent body on human rights, which would provide governments with credibility precisely because it is independent of the present administration. Whatever it says on the human rights situation will be credible because it is not subject to pressure or control from the present political leadership.
Secondly, we all know how political fortunes come and go. Those who are in power yesterday are in opposition today and those who are in power today may be in the opposition tomorrow. Therefore, if we have a Commission on Human Rights that would investigate and make sure that the rights of each one is protected, then we shall have a body that could stand up to any power, to defend the rights of individuals against arrest, unfair trial, and so on.
These deliberative considerations abundantly show that the independent constitutional commissions have been consistently intended by the framers to be independent from executive control or supervision or any form of political influence. At least insofar as these bodies are concerned, jurisprudence is not scarce on how the “independence” granted to these bodies prevents presidential interference.
In Bautista v. Senator Salonga, the Court categorically stated that the tenure of the commissioners of the independent Commission on Human Rights could not be placed under the discretionary power of the President…” (emphasis supplied)
It is therefore beyond dispute that all the “issues” raised against the CHR have long been resolved by the Supreme Court. The agency was never designed to be a mere appendage of government, nor intended to be a rubber-stamp agency run by a bunch of lackeys. And so a CHR that performs its duties in accordance with its mandate will inevitably incur the ire of those it is obligated to check and balance: all three branches of the government, the executive in particular.
As we can see, the arguments that the CHR is inutile because all it does is investigate, and that it deserves a laughable P1,000.00 budget or even total abolition, are unconstitutional, if not irrational. But CHR Commissioner Roberto Cadiz noted the even more irrational move of Congress to question the CHR’s mandate, and dangling the prospect of increasing its budget if its Chair resigns. This indicates that the Congressmen are actually not questioning the CHR’s mandate and just want to force its Chair to resign. It betrays not just their failure to understand what the agency is about, but also their propensity to us underhanded means to attain their goals.
Ironically, the Congressmen themselves can solve all of the “issues” they raised against the CHR. It is within Congress’ power to increase the CHR’s budget and, pursuant to Article XIII Sec. 19 of the Constitution, to enact a law that will “provide for other cases of violations of human rights that should fall within the authority of the Commission”. If only Congress would do so, it can rightfully claim compliance with its own duty under the principles of separation of powers, and checks and balance. The ball is in Congress’ hands.