‘This is a free country’
MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang on Thursday maintained that it respects the fixed terms and different opinions of heads of government agencies amid calls from lawmakers allied with President Rodrigo Duterte for Commission on Human Rights chairperson Chito Gascon to resign.
“You know, they are appointed by the president and previous president and the Palace respects the opinions of the different heads of agencies, including constitutional commissions,” Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan said in a press conference.
Voting 119-32, the House of Representatives, which is dominated by the president’s allies, favored the motion to slash the annual budget of the CHR to a thousand pesos from the Department of Budget’s proposed P678 million.
But the move was seen by critics as punishment for the body’s vocal criticism of Duterte’s drug war.
‘CHR to get full budget if Gascon quits’
Before the controversial House vote, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said the measly budget was appropriate because the CHR had been remiss in its duty to protect the human rights of all Filipinos.
Alvarez also reportedly gave a condition that the constitutional body, which enjoys fiscal autonomy, may regain its proposed budget if Gascon, whose term will expire in 2022, quits his job.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III was quoted in reports as saying that Gascon should step down if he cannot support Duterte’s deadly narcotics crackdown. Sen. Manny Pacquiao also shared that the meager budget showed the House’s displeasure at the CHR’s criticism of the government that funds it.
The CHR is actually mandated to check potential rights abuses by the government as well as its adherence to international humanitarian law.
But in the same news conference on Thursday, Ablan distanced the Palace from the lawmakers’ remarks.
“As far as Malacañang is concerned, we respect the different opinions, beliefs of the different heads of agencies and the statements that you heard come from the other branch – the legislative branch,” he said.
“This is a free country,” he added.
Duterte earlier threatened to abolish the body, a remark he later dismissed as a “joke.”
He had also blamed Gascon for the huge cut to the body’s budget. “He had it coming,” the chief executive remarked.
Previously, a Palace spokesman said that CHR commissioners can be fired at any time.
“Technically, they may be replaced at his pleasure,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in July despite the CHR being a constitutional commission.
To recall, the CHR was not the only agency that Duterte slammed for being critical — or being perceived to be critical — of the administration.
In August, Duterte gave Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales a tongue-lashing for supposedly engaging in “selective justice.” He also said Carpio-Morales is not entitled to a full term.
The tirade came after the ombudsman criticized Duterte for statements that could be seen as encouraging people to kill.
“The directive to kill people under any situation, irrespective of the context, to me, that’s not acceptable,” Morales said in a television interview with Japan’s NHK World in July.
Duterte also fired Dangerous Drug Board Chairman Benjamin Reyes last May for “contradicting your own government” by presenting drug user data based on a government-commissioned survey that contradicted a claim that there are 4 million drug addicts in the Philippines.
Dionisio Santiago, the former Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief whom Duterte cites as the source of the number, is the new DDB chairman.