More informal meetings vital to peace negotiations


It was relieving for those keenly concerned with peace to be reassured early this week that the Duterte government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines remain committed to resume, in the last week of August, the long-suspended GPH-NDFP formal peace negotiations.

The misunderstandings and exchanges of mutually hurting words between the two sides over President Duterte’s declaration – then withdrawal after five days – of a unilateral ceasefire have aptly been played down. One hopes that the mishap be studied meticulously to draw lessons from it and avert its recurrence.

For a while the ceasefire imbroglio threatened to undermine the amity and spirit of cooperation between the two parties. The positive vibes were evident during the preliminary, informal talks in Oslo on June 14-15, facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government. The talks produced a signed joint statement on June 15 wherein the two sides agreed to resume the formal negotiations before President Duterte delivered his first state-of-the-nation address on July 25.

Reviewing the turn of events since then, I have come up with this conclusion: more diligent follow-up informal discussions, between the interlocutors but more importantly within the Duterte government, could have averted last week’s disconcerting consequences.

As I wrote in this space on June 18, Duterte’s two designated envoys, peace process adviser Jesus Dureza and GPH negotiating panel chief Silvestre Bello III, held preliminary talks in Oslo with NDFP peace panel chief Luis Jalandoni and member Fidel Agcaoili. In their joint statement they agreed to recommend, among others, as part of the agenda of the formal negotiations the mode of an interim mutual ceasefire agreement (that would hold throughout the duration of the peace talks).

In fact the NDFP panel handed over to Dureza and Bello its draft of such an interim mutual ceasefire agreement, plus two other drafts: an amnesty proclamation for political prisoners (to be concurred in by Congress) and a proposal for accelerating the pace of the negotiations on the three remaining agenda of the peace talks. Duterte’s envoys didn’t present counterpart drafts. They also didn’t comment on the NDFP drafts, maybe because there was not enough time to study them before the informal talks ended.

The importance of that NDFP draft ceasefire agreement, describing the mode and details of how to carry it out, can be appreciated in the light of what happened with the President’s ceasefire call. These questions can be asked: Did Dureza or Bello study the draft? Did any one of the two furnish Duterte a copy, or at least apprised him of its contents?

Had they studied the draft, they could have commented on it and sent the comments to the NDFP panel, thus encouraging a useful exchange of ideas on the matter. They could also have informed President Duterte of its contents and advised him to craft his unilateral ceasefire declaration in a way that would induce the NDFP to issue its own reciprocal declaration. Apparently, neither Dureza nor Bello took such steps – which speak of a serious shortcoming on their part.

Such a shortcoming can’t just be shunted aside, in the light of information (as disclosed by Fidel Agcaoili in media interviews) that the duo had intimated during the preliminary talks that Duterte might declare a unilateral ceasefire in his SONA. Even at that time, Agcaoili said, the NDFP panel had already asked the two to provide them with details of the ceasefire declaration once it was prepared. He said:

“(President Duterte) declared a unilateral ceasefire without giving us any details, even though we had been asking his negotiators to provide us with a copy should he decide to declare one during the SONA so that we can reciprocate.

“The least he should have done,” Agcaoili added, “was to give us more time, since we have been giving them more time to do what they are expected to do under the Oslo Joint Statement of 15 June 2016.”

Here Agcaoili was referring to another matter: the Duterte envoys’ promise to facilitate the release of detained NDFP consultants so they could participate in the resumed peace talks, plus other political prisoners on humanitarian grounds. (The consultants are guaranteed protection from arrest and detention by the 1995 Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees. But under the Arroyo and Aquino administrations, 22 consultants were arrested, jailed and charged with nonbailable common criminal offenses in various regional trial courts.)

The urgent release of the NDFP consultants had been the subject of discussion, along with the resumption of formal peace talks, between then President-elect Duterte and Agcaoili (as NDFP emissary) in Davao City soon after his proclamation. Duterte responded positively. He said then that he would release all political prisoners through a general amnesty proclamation. (Taking that as a cue, the NDFP panel worked on the draft amnesty proclamation referred to above.)

That Davao dialogue led to Duterte’s sending Dureza and Bello (who took along former GRP panel member Hernani Braganza, whom Duterte later appointed as member of the new panel) to meet with the NDFP negotiators in Oslo.

Failure to effect the early release of the NDFP consultants explains why the formal talks in Oslo have been reset by one month – from July 20 to the last week of August. Another letdown, Duterte announced that only 11 of the 22 detained consultants will be freed. And the NDFP is not happy with the mode of their release: among the conditions being that they must post bail of P100,000, that the period of freedom is limited to six months, and only while they participate in the formal negotiations.

The two panels have much work to do to maintain mutual trust and confidence.

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Published in The Philippine Star
August 6, 2016

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