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Debate on constitutional change ignores protection of rights

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
February 6, 2018

As widely reported, the Philippines House of Representatives (Congress), the country’s legislative body, is lobbying to change the political system by amending the 1987 Constitution. President Rodrigo Duterte’s political allies in Congress are proposing to change from a presidential form of government, to a federal one. The main reasons given for this are twofold: first, to devolve power to local government; second, a federal state would allow equal distribution of wealth among local government units.

According to the proponents of federalism, their constituencies have been neglected by “Imperial Manila”. This supposed governmental neglect and unequal distribution of resources by the national government is being blamed for poor performance. This argument is not entirely accurate, as a Local Government Code empowering local government units already exists. As former chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. had said, to amend the distribution of resources from the national government does not require amending the Constitution, only the Local Government Code.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is thus curious as to why President Rodrigo Duterte’s political allies are so bent on changing the 1987 Constitution within his term. The 1987 Constitution contains the aspirations of the Filipino people in reaction to the Marcos dictatorship: notably the Bill of Rights, and provisions on social justice. Ignored by Marcos, these were inscribed and explicitly written down afterward. It is unfortunate that over three decades after Marcos’ dictatorship ended, these aspirations are yet to be realized. In fact, the current debate on the proposed constitutional change is silent on constitutional rights. Moreover, the institutions built to protect these aspirations are being intimidated.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Office of the Ombudsman, two independent constitutional bodies created by the 1987 Constitution, have recently been targeted by President Duterte’s political allies in Congress. The Congress attempted to deprived the CHR of its operational budget by funding it only P1,000 pesos. Had it not been for the protests against it, the lawmakers would not have reconsidered the funding. Since assuming office, CHR chairperson Jose Luis Martin Gascon has been a target of President Duterte’s harsh critics, for standing in his way on the drug war. Meanwhile, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales recently locked horns with President Duterte as she refused to implement his order suspending her Overall Deputy Ombudsman, Melchor Arthur Carandang. He reportedly leaked the bank transactions of Duterte and his family without their consent.

Whether or not President Duterte’s allies will succeed in their plan to change the political system from a presidential to federal one, the current debate excludes any discussion on how constitutional rights should be protected. This is hardly surprising, given President Duterte’s rejection of human rights as values, and his intimidation of institutions that check abuses. The current administration and its political allies have no thoughts of protecting the constitutional rights of their constituencies. This can only worsen in a federal state, with local bosses lording over their constituents in complete disregard of their rights.

Any debate on constitutional change must include discussion on the protection of constitutional rights. Where are Filipinos to turn to seek protection for their yet to be fulfilled aspirations? Those proposing amendments to the constitution owe an explanation to the people they intend to rule in a federal state. Those who oppose constitutional amendments, also owe it to the Filipino people, to discuss what it means to overhaul the Constitution without any dialogue on the protection of constitutional rights. The pain, suffering, insights, and aspirations of those who suffered the dictatorship must be taken into account in any political change.