Civil society protests dismantling of NAPC law
By Gina Mission

hey were promised representation in the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC). After a change of administration, however, everything went on but the promise.

___At a press conference on March 1, leaders of various sectoral organizations protested what they claimed as President Joseph Estrada’s wanton disregard of the law creating the NAPC to "accommodate his political supporters." In a statement, the leaders called the President’s act "a clear violation of the right of the basic sectors to choose their leaders who will represent them in the NAPC." They expressed grave disappointment over the "corruption" of the commission, which they considered "an important instrument in uplifting the lives of the poor and marginalized."

___The NAPC is the government-basic sector council tasked to coordinate and monitor the poverty alleviation and social reform programs of government. It was created by virtue of the Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act (RA 8425), a Cabinet-level, "multi-sectoral coordinating and advisory body for government anti-poverty projects."

___Signed in December 1997, RA 8425 provides for the participation in the commission of basic sectors including farmers, fisherfolk, urban poor, labor, women, workers in the informal sector, children, and youth and students. The law took effect in June 1998, six months after the ratification of its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR).

___As the IRR provides, the NAPC is composed of the President of the Republic who acts as chairperson and who appoints a Lead Convenor or Commissioner, either from the government or one of the basic sectors. The Commissioner, who heads the NAPC Secretariat, has the rank of a Cabinet Secretary. The President also appoints a Vice Chairperson (VC) for the government sector while representatives of the basic sectors must choose among themselves another Vice Chair who will be confirmed by the President. In all, the commission has 17 members from the government and 14 from the basic sectors.

___Following this composition and to ensure the basic sectors’ participation in the commission, RA 8425 strictly stipulates a three-stage process of selection which reserves for them the right to choose members of the Sectoral Councils. This was affirmed by President Estrada through Administrative Order (AO) No. 11 (also considered as the "second IRR" or guidelines) which he issued in July 1998.

___Under this law, sectoral assemblies shall be formed among sectoral organizations to form Sectoral Councils. The Sectoral Councils will in turn convene to develop consensus points on the sectoral advocacy program and choose three nominees from whom the President will choose a Sectoral Commissioner of the NAPC.

___As agreed by the basic sectors and government, the former will a) convene sectoral assemblies, through their Preparatory Committees, to choose their members in the Sectoral Councils; b) choose three nominees from the Sectoral Councils from whom the President will appoint the Commissioner to the NAPC and; c) finish the sectoral assembly by November 1998. The NAPC is supposed to shoulder the full cost of the assemblies.

___Consequently, people’s organizations (POs) and NGOs, began meeting for sectoral assemblies in July, in accordance with the guidelines set by law for the selection process. But on September 30, former NAPC Lead Convenor Orlando Sacay, acting by order of the President, informed the basic sectors that a round of local assemblies should precede the scheduled national assemblies. The POs and NGOs protested that this "threw back the scheduled timetable by several months."

___On October 16, Sacay reversed his September decision, and insisted that the delegates to the sectoral assemblies would have to be screened by "regional technical working groups." According to the protesters, Sacay also insisted that the basic sectors should pay for half of the expenses for their assemblies.

___However, on November 23, without Sacay’s knowledge, President Estrada, issued Memorandum (MO) 36 and Administrative Order (AO) No. 36. MO 36 designated an "interim executive committee" for NAPC composed of the President as the chair; Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor (PCUP) Chair Donna Gasgonia as VC for government; and Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio Morales as acting Lead Convenor. AO 36, on the other hand, gave the power to choose the members of the sectoral council and the nominees for Sectoral Commissioner to the President.

___Both orders were met with head-on opposition from the basic sectors who claimed that "the function of the Sectoral Councils to nominate persons for the position of Sectoral Commissioner has been usurped by the President." Saligan, an NGO which seeks to implement societal change through the empowerment of the basic sectors by the creative use of legal resources, described AO 36 as "a contradiction of the law it seeks to implement."

___In a letter to President Estrada, the chair/convenors of the sectoral assembly Preparatory Committees decried the new orders and asked him not to implement them. Insead, they asked the President to reinstate AO 11. They argued that AO 36 "is contrary to the terms and intent of RA 8425" which grants the sectors "exclusive right and authority to nominate persons for the position of 14 Sectoral Representatives." As to the interim executive committee, the group said that RA 8425 provides for "the Preparatory Committees, in temporary capacity, to exercise the powers and assume the duties of the NAPC" until the commission is formally convened.

___When there was no reply to their demands, the group met with Gasgonia on December 21 who assured them that AO 36 "recognizes the validity of the convening sectoral assemblies" and that it "does not annul processes adopted under AO 11." She also said that the Preparatory Committees had until the end of February to hold their respective assemblies, in accordance with the process set in AO 11.

___Two days after the meeting, however, Estrada issued a third set of guidelines which provided for direct nomination to and appointment of the members of Sectoral Councils by the Office of the President.

___After repeated requests for meetings with the NAPC officials, Secretary Morales released a new timetable on February 9 which set February 17 as the deadline for the submission of nominations to the Sectoral Councils, either through direct nomination or nomination by the Sectoral Assembly, with the intention of formally convening the NAPC by March 16.

___Because of the confusing government directives, several sectors which had signified the intention to choose their Sectoral Councils through the assembly process (including workers in the informal sector, youth and students, farmers, formal labor, indigenous peoples, and fisherfolk), did not meet the deadline. At the same time, Christina Roperez, Program Officer of the National Peace Conference, said, several "fly-by-night" NGOs came up with their own Sectoral Councils.

___Disgruntled, the basic sectors led by KATINIG, a national confederation of workers in the informal sector, through Saligan, filed at the Supreme Court on February 22, a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Office of the President. The suit requested the High Court to stop Malacaņang’s appointment of members to the Sectoral Councils, which wouldl be created by the newly-formed NAPC under AO 36. The petition reiterated their earlier complaint that AO 36 "blatantly disregarded the clear provisions of RA 8425 and removes the power granted by law to the sectors to choose the members of their respective Sectoral Councils and effectively transfers the power to make such a choice to the President."

___The following day, the Supreme Court issued an en banc decision dismissing the petition for (a) insufficiency in form and substance; (b) lack of jurisdiction (what should have been filed was a declaratory relief rather than a TRO) and; (c) violation of the court hierarchy.

___The NGOs and POs were shocked by the Court’s "unresponsive reasoning" which was handed down in less down 24 hours – a "miracle," according to Saligan, for a court that has a reputation for being slow in resolving cases. At first, the petitioners decided not to file a motion for reconsideration. "It will only be a futile exercise," explained a Saligan lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The way the Court handled the petition, it is very clear that it has no intention of reviewing the case on the basis of its merits."

___But just recently, Saligan expressed its intention to file a motion for reconsideration for the Court to decide the case on the bases of its substance. "There have been cases of the same nature before that the Supre Court decided based on merits rather than being dismissed on technicality. We'll ask them to do the same with our case," said a Saligan lawyer.

___On February 24, the People’s Journal, a tabloid of the Journal Group of Publications, published a list of nominees who will compose the Sectoral Councils. The Manila Bulletin, a national daily broadsheet, published the same list on March 1.

___Ed Rancio, chair of the Urban Land Reform Task Force criticized the list, saying it "included names suggested by doubtful organizations, and were apparently included only at the last minute."

___As the protesters lamented: "The turn of events portrays the callousness of NAPC officials to the principle recognizing the right of the sectors to self-representation. We are angry at these actions of ranking NAPC officers which frustrate our efforts to ensure a democratic and open process for the selection of the representatives of the marginalized groups in the commission. We have been witness to their deceptive pattern of openly agreeing with us on a fair and equitable process, but in the end, following their own political whims."

___They called on President Estrada to "recognize the process of sectoral assemblies as the sole means of selection of members of the Sectoral Councils; legalize these processes under a new set of implementing rules and regulations for RA 8425; and appoint a new NAPC leadership which will be faithful to the processes allowed by law."

___In spite of their defeat on the legal front, the protesters resolved to resort to "extra-judicial" measures to fight for their rights, saying: "We will continue the battle until the government will heed our demands." But for how long can they withstand Estrada’s cold treatment?

CyberDyaryo | 1999.03.04