Philippine Congress backs annual budget of just S$26 for agency probing Duterte's drugs war

Protesters hold placards seeking justice for 17-year-old high school student Kian delos Santos, who was killed in a recent police raid in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, during a protest in front of the Philippine National
Protesters hold placards seeking justice for 17-year-old high school student Kian delos Santos, who was killed in a recent police raid in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, during a protest in front of the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters, on Aug 23, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (REUTERS) - Philippine lawmakers allied with President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday (Sept 12) voted to allocate an annual budget of just 1,000 pesos (S$26.45) to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a public body that has clashed repeatedly with Duterte over his bloody war on drugs.

About four-fifths of Lower House members present supported the move to cut the budget to almost nil, in what critics of the anti-drugs campaign call retaliation against the agency's efforts to investigate thousands of killings over the past 15 months.

The CHR deserved a low budget for being a "useless" body and defending criminals' rights, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, a close ally of Duterte, said in a television interview.

"If you want to protect the rights of criminals, get your budget from the criminals," he said. "It's that simple. Why should you get budget from the government and yet you are not doing your job?"

Congressman Edcel Lagman said 32 minority lawmakers opposed the measure during the debate at the second reading. He said Duterte's supporters were "virtually imposing the death penalty on a constitutionally created and mandated independent office".

The CHR requested a budget of 1.72 billion pesos for 2018, but the government proposed 678 million pesos.

Congress voted to slash that to just 1,000 pesos, a huge cut from the 2017 budget of 749 million. The budget requires another vote, then Senate approval before it becomes final.

Human rights monitors said the CHR was a vital institution that stands no chance of doing its job without a proper budget.

"CLIMATE OF FEAR"

Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the overwhelming support for the cut was "part of the Duterte administration's attempt to prevent independent institutions to check its abuses".

Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said Filipinos deserved a strong, independent rights organisation that could hold the state accountable.

"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," Callamard posted on her Facebook page.

"If the Philippines Congress is looking for public money being wasted, damaging and hurting the Philippines society, this is it."

The CHR has long complained it lacks manpower and resources to fully investigate the killings, the majority of which activists say are of users and small-time peddlers, with few high-profile arrests.

Filipinos, however, are largely supportive of the crackdown as a solution to tackling rampant crime, which Duterte says stems from drug addiction.

Critics maintain police are executing suspects, and say the government has what is effectively a kill policy. Duterte has angrily rejected that and police say they kill only in self-defence.

CHR head, Chito Gascon, said the measly budget was an attempt to force his resignation. He said he would take the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary. "The principal reason why I cannot resign my office is that to do so is to weaken the institution itself," Gascon said. "Asking me to resign would lead to essentially making the institution forever at the mercy of politics."