[Reflection] Expanding the Mandate of the Commission on Human Rights: Can a toothless tiger bite with false teeth?

CHR en banc meeting. Is CHR ready to have a quasi judicial power? Photo from balita.ph

The human rights situation in every country is gauged not only on how its governments have performed its primary duties to promote, protect and fulfill the basic human rights of its every citizen by putting in place in its policies and programs, measures and mechanisms that guarantee redress and accountability, but also on the performance of a well functioning national human rights institutions (NHRIs) which are in charge with the compliance monitoring of the human rights performance of the states.

The role of NHRIs in fostering a culture of human rights promotion and protection has been widely recognized in recent years. It goes without saying that these days every country has to have a national human rights commission if it is really committed to human rights.

However, many governments have established their own human rights commissions just for the purpose of improving their international reputation and shielding themselves from international criticisms and scrutiny for committing gross violations of human rights. In fact, the NHRIs that have shown high level of effectiveness and independence are mostly those where its governments have the strong commitment to human rights compared to those NHRIs in countries where human rights are most seriously violated.

Philippines is said to be exceptional for having a very dynamic NHRI. The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP), an independent constitutional body enshrined under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, was created in 1987 with the issuance of its legislative charter, Executive Order No. 163. Its present proactive stance is said to have inspired the Filipino people to look at it as the protector and promoter of human rights in the country.

However, many are still of the opinion that even if the CHRP carries out its function well, if its powers are limited, it will still be incapable of curbing human rights transgressions. This is not mainly on the issue of having a limited power but more specifically on its defined focal functions which hardly met the criteria set forth by the Paris Principles. Although, much of the discussions on NHRI’s performance audit using this international criteria have been largely normative and legal. What I am more concerned with is its practical performance or on how it really carries out its mandate and functions.

The Paris Principles require that NHRI must have a broad mandate as possible which mean the unrestricted power to promote and protect human rights. The Commission has various powers and functions as enumerated in the 1987 Constitution, among which is the power to investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights. Its principal function therefore is primarily investigatory. But this investigative power of the CHRP has been the main subject of criticisms by various sectors due to generally two reasons. First, the mere investigatory power does not give the much needed teeth that can forestall human rights violation nor provide redress for misdeed. Secondly, it is limited to political and civil rights and excludes the vast area of economic, social and cultural rights.

The reason for this according the Constitutional expert Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ was that the desire of the 1986 Constitutional Commission is not to overburden the Commission during its initial years and this limitation does not exclude the possibility of expanding the Commission’s scope. This is said to pose no serious problem to the Commission as it has able to transcend over the years this constitutional limitation by issuing resolutions that clearly differentiated the investigation for purposes of prosecution for civil and political violations and investigative monitoring on economic, social and cultural issues. It has even used such issues to remind the government on its obligations emanating pertinent international human rights treaties in which Philippines is a State party.

The local lawyers group, Libertas in its 2010 ANNI Report entitled, Philippines: A Time of Great Irony concluded that “the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines which once taunted as a ‘toothless tiger’, began to roar.” It was during the iniquitous Arroyo administration where the spate of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances has reached an alarming proportion that the Commission made use of its investigative power to bring human rights violations to the fore. It held public inquiries, fact finding missions and special operations to ferret out the truth behind alleged state abuses.

Hence, the need to grant the Commission the power to prosecute and adjudicate or even to the extent of converting it to a quasi-judicial body is now seriously being considered. For two decades, several bills have been filed in Congress seeking to enhance the Commission’s independence through an amendment to its legislative charter but until now it is yet to be enacted by the Philippine Congress. One suggested reform is to provide the Commission with a “standby prosecutorial powers” in cases of failure by the government prosecution body to act on human rights violations.

However despite this noble intention, others believed that the grant of such power will mean the change the nature of the CHRP as provided for in the Constitution since it may undermine its status as an independent constitutional body and as result it may clash with other prosecutorial agencies such as the Department of Justice and Ombudsman. I believe that the difference in the prosecutorial functions of the CHRP to that of other prosecutorial agencies can be best resolved by clearly defining the scope and limitations of such functions. What bothers me is the tendency of the CHRP to mistakenly identify a mere criminal offense to that of human rights violation especially if it involves non-State actor. If this is the case, perhaps CHRP should push for the enactment of a “Code on Human Rights Violation” which will delineate the distinction between the commission of a criminal act punishable by law from the violation of human rights. This is very important for the CHRP to effectively perform its prosecutorial functions.

The Paris Principles provide that NHRI should investigate and report upon potential human rights violations at the request of government or any interested party or on its own initiative. But even if the present and previous CHR’s leadership have shown activism and independence, the institution remains largely a part of the government’s bureaucracy that work on an eight to five o’clock basis and remains inept to take prompt action on urgent issues especially those situated in different regions. How if the violation is committed during weekends? It is short of saying that CHRP needs to set up a call center which will advice the callers that CHRP personnel will get back to them as soon as they have reported in the office. The Commission’s complaint-handling and investigation processes based on the actual experiences of human rights organizations reveal a lack of coherent policies and in most cases have undermined its effectiveness.

The CHRP as an investigative and soon as a prosecutorial body should provide a coherent procedural policies and create quick reaction teams if it accepts the need to have strong “teeth” because if not, it may find itself biting with false teeth while roaring with regrets.

The CHRP’s performance if based on the Paris Principles for me is yet to get off the mark in terms of its mandate and functions. Although, I know that there are several factors that need to be discussed as vital point of references to really come up with an objective assessment of CHRP’s performance but let me reserve those issues on my next blog article.


8 thoughts on “[Reflection] Expanding the Mandate of the Commission on Human Rights: Can a toothless tiger bite with false teeth?

  1. Egay Cabalitan September 4, 2011 / 7:24 pm

    “…it may find itself biting with false teeth while roaring with regrets.” nice one Darwin.

    or it has been biting and roaring at the wrong tree… Hahahaha!

    • dars0357 September 4, 2011 / 9:15 pm

      It actually sounds the same…depending who is talking to whom…

  2. Jerbert Briola (@JerbertB) September 4, 2011 / 8:45 pm

    I fully agree with your opinion particular about the CHRP’s performance “if based on the Paris Principles” as a yardstick “is yet to get off the mark in terms of its mandate and functions.”

    More to than this, though, the CHRP is a constitutional body that best guarantees its legitimacy, but based on its performance is yet to acquire public legitimacy as well as that of credibility. Nevertheless, legitimacy and credibility have to be won. I think the CHRP should move from a complaints-led to a program-led approach in the performance of its various functions.

    I understand the fact that the NHRIs stand at the crossroads of government and civil society. Based on this framework, the CHRP need to define and delimit the space they occupy in relation to other institutions that have the obligations to protect, promote and fulfill human rights, within and outside government. To operate effectively, the CHRP need to be truly independent of the executive and other institutions of government, including the judiciary, not as “apologist” of these institutions, but must wield effective influence within those institutions. Of course, it does not mean, with the end view of ending all violations of human rights in the country.

    Based on your views and my personal observation, it is high time for the CHRP to evaluate its own performance beyond the publication of annual report or other related information.

    • dars0357 September 4, 2011 / 9:18 pm

      Thank you for initiating the discussion on the need to audit the CHRP’s performance… I will gladly consider your points in my next blog article…your words always inspire me to write more on the issue…

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