There is a Commission on Human Rights to even up the imbalance of power that exists between the government and the citizenry. That is the job of the CHR, ideally: to defend and protect the ordinary, often-powerless citizen from a powerful, sometimes-abusive government and its agents.
But a CHR that has become politically weaponized cannot perform this function. Under the stewardship of current chairman Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon, a former top functionary of the Liberal Party before his appointment in 2015, the CHR has morphed into a partisan agency which will not look into allegations of abusive government officials when doing so goes against Gascon’s politics.
I will no longer recite particular incidents of Gascon’s aggressive opposition to the Duterte administration’s war on illegal drugs, which in all likelihood cost his agency its budget in the House of Representatives this week. Instead, I will only recall two recent events where the CHR should have stepped in and fulfilled its mandate, but where it most definitely did not.
These are: the bloody March 27, 2016 clash between starving farmers and national and local security forces in North Cotabato which became known as the “Kidapawan Massacre”; and the extended and illegal detention of the so-called “Ilocos Six” at the House of Representatives earlier this year, when Congress was investigating alleged anomalies in the use of tobacco excise tax by the Ilocos Norte provincial government.
These two incidents are perfect examples of how the political bent of Gascon, a key campaigner of Noynoy Aquino and a top official of Aquino’s party before he was rewarded with the post of chief rights watchdog of the previous administration, prevented his agency from doing its job. If Gascon has been overzealous in going after Duterte and the police as they continue their anti-drug campaign, the CHR chief has not fulfilled his mandate when his politics demanded that he shouldn’t.
In the first incident, Gascon’s CHR did investigate the Kidapawan Massacre, which was one of the final black eyes sustained by the Aquino administration as it limped to its ignominious, empathy-free end last year. But the CHR found that the police were not guilty of using excessive force when they killed two farmers and injured scores of others when the provincial government decided to disperse them outside a National Food Authority warehouse in Kidapawan. The CHR took the Aquino government’s side, saying that the 3,000 farmers who massed on the highway outside the warehouse were “induced to join the protest action through deceit by the organizers and ‘unknown persons.’”
The CHR’s official 46-page report said violence was committed not only by the police but by “the violent act of protesters that left two police officers battling for their lives.” In an unusual (by present-day standards, of course) move, the CHR did not find that excessive force was used by the police against the protesters, even if “the PNP fired the first [gun]shot.”
In case you’ve forgotten, the protest was launched by farmers went to the warehouse only because they wanted the rice in the NFA warehouse. Those stocks of rice had already been earmarked for distribution to the farmers after the entire country’s rice harvest had been destroyed by the El Niño drought that hit that year.
So, in answer to the question raised by supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte if the CHR under Gascon was ever pro-government and pro-police, well, yes, it was. But it had to be on the side of the government that appointed Gascon and the police opened fire on hungry farmers first.
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In the second incident, the CHR distinguished itself by not even appearing at the scene at all. For months, the six Ilocos Norte provincial officials were detained by yet another government agency, the House of Representatives, after they were held in contempt by Congress leaders investigating the alleged misuse of tobacco excise taxes by the administration of Gov. Imee Marcos.
The case of the “Ilocos Six” was tailor-made for the CHR’s intervention because the lowly provincial officials were apparently detained only because the House leadership wanted to force Marcos to come to them and admit that she had misused official funds. The six public servants were eventually released months after they were detained under “inhuman” conditions, according to the governor—but the CHR never entered the picture, apparently because Gascon thought that he should not help the Marcoses in any way.
And as a bonus, I will throw in how Gascon, just months into his job in 2015, simply ignored the finding of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that found that the Aquino administration’s five-year detention of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo “arbitrary and violative of the international law on human rights” because it repeatedly denied her bail petitions. Arroyo’s advocate before the UN was international rights lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of Hollywood star George Clooney—but the CHR under Gascon would not have cared more if Arroyo had engaged the lawyerly services of Perry Mason himself.
Gascon has no one but himself to blame for his agency’s budget woes. His record as a political partisan—even if you never consider his opposition to Duterte’s war on drugs —makes that perfectly clear.