Philippine lawmakers on Tuesday voted to slash next year's budget for the Commission on Human Rights to just $20 (€17), dealing a blow to the body investigating President Rodrigo Duterte's deadly war on drugs.
The vote passed 119 to 32 in the lower house, in what critics said was an unconstitutional move to silence the agency for its attempts to investigate thousands of killings of alleged drug users and petty dealers over the past 15 months.
House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said in a television interview the budget cut was necessary because the agency was "useless” and defended criminals.
"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?"
Representative Rodante Marcoleta said the commission should also be investigating rights abuses committed by communist rebels and Islamist militants.
"There shouldn't be a selective application," he said.
Blow to accountability
The budget cut now needs to be passed by the Senate, which is dominated by Duterte loyalists, before being sent to the president for a signature. Last year the commission received $14.7 million and it had asked for $34 million in 2018.
Critics of Duterte's all out war on drugs say police are executing thousands of people, mostly petty drug dealers and users. However, the brutal campaign has maintained the support of many Filipinos tired of drug-driven crime in the country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that if the budget cuts go through it "would deal a blow against accountability for human rights violations in the Philippines."
"The vote by an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives is part of the Duterte administration's attempt to prevent independent institutions to check its abuses, particularly in the context of the brutal drug war," said Phelim Kine, the deputy Asia director for HRW.
Chito Gascon, the head of Commission on Human Rights, said Congress was trying to force him to resign.
"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."
He said that he may take the issue to the Supreme Court.
cw/jm (Reuters, dpa)