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Philippine watchdog ‘pressured’ to backtrack on abortion rights

Lawmakers' threat to cut funding undermines the Commission on Human Rights' ability to protect reproductive rights, says HRW

Supporters of presidential candidate Leni Robredo join a rally in front of the Supreme Court in Manila on Oct. 8, 2019. Human Rights Watch accused the country's conservative lawmakers of threatening to cut the budget of the Commission on Human Rights for supporting abortion rights

Supporters of presidential candidate Leni Robredo join a rally in front of the Supreme Court in Manila on Oct. 8, 2019. Human Rights Watch accused the country's conservative lawmakers of threatening to cut the budget of the Commission on Human Rights for supporting abortion rights. (Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)

Published: November 21, 2023 11:05 AM GMT

Updated: November 21, 2023 11:25 AM GMT

Threats by members of the Philippine Congress to defund the nation's top rights body have resulted in its weakening of support for abortion rights, said New York-based rights Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The lawmakers’ action against the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) not only undermines the commission’s ability to protect reproductive rights in the Philippines but imperils all of the commission’s work to protect human rights, the HRW said in a statement on Nov. 21.

During deliberations on the national budget on Nov. 13, members of the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives warned they would seek to eliminate funding for the commission if it continues to support abortion rights, the statement said.

One senator reportedly said the commission should be given a “zero” budget unless it demonstrated a “strong stance” against abortion.

On November 15, the commission chairperson, Richard Palpal-latoc, backtracked on the commission’s position in support of abortion rights and declared that the commission was “against abortion, save for extreme circumstances.”

“The Philippines Commission on Human Rights can’t properly function to protect human rights when legislators are threatening its existence,” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at HRW.

The Philippines government, including the human rights commission, has responsibilities “to ensure that women and girls can exercise bodily autonomy and access safe abortions as part of their basic human rights,” Lau said.

The lawmakers opposing funding for the commission cited a September statement by its executive director, Jacqueline de Guia, in support of new legislation to decriminalize abortion, which is still illegal in the Catholic-majority nation. 

Women’s rights advocates in the Philippines have long fought for the decriminalization of abortion, citing various studies that show Filipino women are forced to undergo clandestine and unsafe conditions to get an abortion, putting themselves at serious risk, HRW said.

The Catholic Church and Christian groups, as well as conservative lawmakers, have resisted any such initiatives. Congress has not acted on a proposed bill to amend the Revised Penal Code to decriminalize abortion.

HRW says the Philippines is bound by international human rights laws and relevant jurisprudence to provide women, girls, and other pregnant people with access to safe and legal abortions.

Moreover, as a party to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Philippines is obligated to ensure women’s right to health and bodily autonomy, including making decisions around pregnancy and abortion, it added.

The Philippine Congress has previously tried to slash the commission’s budget. In 2017, at the height of the government’s abusive “war on drugs,” then President Rodrigo Duterte proposed a 1,000 peso budget – US $20 – for the commission because, as one Duterte ally in Congress put it, the commission was “defending criminals.”

Although the proposed cut was not adopted, the commission was still depicted as the “enemy” for defending the rights of “drug war” victims and their families.

The Commission on Human Rights was established after the 1986 public uprising that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. It is the first national human rights commission in Asia.

However, for many years it has been a weak institution unable to fulfill its mandate, partly due to a lack of funding and powers, such as issuing subpoenas, needed for investigations, HRW said.

The commission found a firmer footing and stronger voice under chairperson Leila de Lima, a former senator who served from 2008 to 2010.

De Lima was recently released after spending more than six years in prison on alleged false drug charges after she attempted to probe Duterte’s anti-drug killings.

Congress has not yet approved a proposed draft for changes to the commission’s charter that would strengthen its mandate.

“The Philippines needs an independent, well-funded national human rights body to address the most egregious rights violations in the country and protect the rights of all Filipinos,” Lau said.

“By threatening the CHR’s budget, these lawmakers are trying to render the constitutionally mandated body useless.”

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