December 09, 2010

Looking forward: the GRP-NDFP peace talks

Contrary to skeptics’ views, there are objective conditions that auger positively for the upcoming resumption of formal peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the revolutionary alliance that includes the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA).

The new President, formerly a member of the anti-Arroyo opposition in Congress, whose battle cry then and now is the call for “change” and “reform”, is in a very good position to jump start the stalled talks amidst renewed hopes that a just and lasting peace may again be on the horizon.

Historically, any change in administration presents a unique opportunity for departing from, if not overhauling, its predecessor’s policies and approaches to festering problems such as the decades-old armed conflict between government and the CPP-NPA-NDF. President Benigno Aquino III has promised as much in sweeping terms vis a vis the sins and failings of the Arroyo regime as he sees it as well as on the specific issue of peace and security.

The head of the government peace panel Atty. Alex Padilla and the NDFP chief negotiator Luis Jalandoni, met informally last week in Hong Kong and emerged with the announcement that a holiday ceasefire would take place and preliminary and formal talks would resume in January and February of next year.

This announcement together with specific guarantees that the person and liberty of Mr. Jalandoni and his wife and co-peace panel member Coni Ledesma while in the country for a “private visit” would be respected has generated some excitement about the possibilities for a peace pact between the warring parties.

To anchor heightened expectations on peace prospects under the Aquino administration, certain premises and historical antecedents need to be recalled, clarified and reiterated.

Neither skepticism nor uninformed peace mongering should be allowed to rule the day.

The Hague Joint Declaration is a foundation agreement that everyone advocating a just peace must grasp firmly and uphold as the indispensable general framework without which the GRP-NDFP negotiations could not have taken place much less advance to the point of inking four more bilateral agreements, including the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

It states that the purpose of the peace negotiations is to arrive at a just and lasting peace by resolving the roots of the armed conflict. It contains the essential principle that the talks are not about getting either side to surrender but on negotiating the terms of a peace settlement covering the major areas of 1) human rights and international humanitarian law, 2) social and economic reforms, 3) political and constitutional reforms, and 4) end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

Deceptively simple and straightforward, the Hague Joint Declaration makes clear that government cannot hope to convince, hoodwink or coerce the NDFP to agree to give up its arms without addressing the abovementioned areas of contention not just with token promises of reform but with iron-clad agreements that stand the test of concurrent implementation such as on respect for human rights and IHL.

The Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees or JASIG, on the other hand, ensures that the negotiating panels on either side, including their staff and consultants who may or may not be organic to or intrinsic to their principals’ organization, will not be subject to surveillance, arrest and to being charged in court for their involvement in the peace negotiations during and even after the peace process is terminated.

Obviously, without this agreement, the NDFP would be at an extreme disadvantage since it is a proscribed, underground organization in the Philippines, albeit an armed revolutionary one. The comings and goings of staff and consultants necessary to buttress and support the work of the NDFP panel would unavoidably lead them to incur serious risk in operating in enemy territory, that is, in areas where the CPP/NPA/NDFP have no control or influence.

The listing of the CPP and NPA in the “terrorist” roster of the United States, the European Union and other countries, including the Netherlands where the NDFP office is located, upon the instigation and with the cooperation of the Philippine government, has already grossly undermined the purpose and effect of JASIG.

In the aftermath, Chief Political Consultant to the NDFP peace panel, Prof. Jose Ma. Sison had been arrested and detained for several weeks and the NDFP office and residences of its officers and staff had been raided and properties confiscated.

JASIG was unilaterally suspended by the GRP August 2005. Since then one NDFP consultant has been assassinated, at least eleven are under detention, five have been abducted by suspected state security agents and have not been surfaced since and scores, including Mr. Jalandoni and Mr. Sison, have been charged for various crimes with pending arrest warrants.

It stands to reason why the NDFP seeks categorical affirmation of the effectivity of JASIG and that this commitment of the GRP is relayed widely to the military, police and even to state prosecutors and the courts for their proper guidance and action.

CARHRIHL is the first bilateral agreement to be inked on one of the four substantive agenda of the peace negotiations, eloquent proof that it is after all possible for the two warring and seemingly irreconcilable parties to craft and sign a crucial agreement.

Not only does it constitute a breakthrough in terms of a mutual commitment to adhere to clearly defined HR and IHL standards, it also set in place a concrete mechanism by which both sides could be held accountable by human rights victims together with the domestic and international human rights community,

Unfortunately, while the Joint Secretariats of the GRP-NDFP Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) that is mandated to monitor implementation of CARHRIHL has been constituted, the JMC itself has never met. The Arroyo government insisted that the JMC could not function while the peace talks were suspended, a position that finds no basis under the terms of CARHRIHL.

Thus cases of human rights violations filed by both sides have piled up but no joint investigations much less joint efforts to attain justice and prevent future violations in accord with CARHRIHL have taken place.

Without progress in the implementation of this vital agreement, the prospects for inking binding agreements on more contentious socio-economic, political and constitutional reforms appear dim.

The clamor for a peaceful settlement to armed conflicts must be attended by an informed and critical understanding of what had gone on in the past, what had caused snafus and breakdowns and what will be needed to move forward.

Without a doubt, past agreements that have gone through painstaking and hard-nosed negotiations must be upheld and complied with by both sides or risk having no substantial starting point to speak of.

On the part of the Aquino government, a clear manifestation of openness and resolve to discuss basic social and economic reforms that would address the underlying reasons for the poverty, oppression and injustice that drive people to protest and rebel, would be a gesture peace advocates everywhere would welcome and applaud.#

10-11 December 2010
Published in Business World


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