Negotiate in a non-adversarial way. Resolve differences and overcome obstacles. Focus on the substantial agenda of social, economic and political reforms that address the root causes of the armed conflict and thus move decisively forward to a just and lasting peace.
Invoking these vital principles, the two panels in the revived GRP-NDFP peace talks under the Duterte government rekindled optimism at the opening of the third round of formal negotiations now ongoing in Rome.
To recall: the talks took off with high expectations in August. But as they advanced in the second round in October, reservations emerged over unfulfilled promises by the GRP, which spawned frustrations in the NDFP ranks toward the end of 2016, threatening to erode mutual trust and confidence.
The cause of frustration was the backtracking of President Duterte, after receiving adverse advice from members of his Cabinet, from his May 2016 offer to issue a general amnesty proclamation (to be concurred in by Congress) for the release of about 400 political prisoners. He has pressed for a bilateral ceasefire agreement in lieu of the reciprocal unilateral ceasefire declarations of the two sides beginning on Aug. 27, 2016.
In Rome, the tone for non-adversarial negotiations was set by Jose Ma. Sison, NDFP chief political consultant. He cited his phone conversation with President Duterte in December wherein they agreed to take “earnest steps” to ensure the success of the peace talks, including a face-to-face meeting in a neutral venue after the Rome round.
Reiterating gratefulness for Duterte’s release of 19 NDFP consultants in August that enabled them to participate directly in the peace talks, Sison said the President’s action was essentially in compliance with two previously signed agreements: the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL). He added that the NDFP continues to expect the release of hundreds of political detainees, also in compliance with the CARHRIHL. (This accord mandates the GRP to review all cases of political prisoners and to “immediately release” those found to have been arrested, detained, charged and convicted of common crimes contrary to the Hernandez “political offense” doctrine, upheld several times by the Supreme Court.)
“It’s important that at every round, the two panels review and require compliance with already existing agreements,” Sison emphasized. In August, the panels reaffirmed the CARHRIHL, the JASIG and 10 other previously signed agreements. The two accords are much more potent legal aces for the NDFP vis-a-vis Duterte’s claim that keeping the political prisoners in jail constitutes his ace in the peace negotiations; the latter even evokes a bad taste of injustice.
Besides the provision against filing trumped-up common-crime charges rather than rebellion or related political offenses, the CARHRIHL also binds the GRP to take the necessary steps towards enabling the victims of human rights violations under the Marcos dictatorship to receive monetary compensation that they won in a class suit filed in Hawaii in 1986. In view of Duterte’s having caused the political rehabilitation of Marcos by burying his remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, Sison expressed the NDFP’s concern on the adverse consequence on the victims’ compensation. However, President Duterte has responded positively to the appeal by SELDA (the organization of former political detainees that initiated the Hawaii class suit) for his intercession in speeding up the processing of applications, and the payment of compensation, of 75,000 HR violation claimants under RA 10368 passed in 2013.
Positively assessing the progress on the substantive agenda, Sison pointed out that the reciprocal working committees on social and economic reforms can make “significant headway” in the Rome talks towards unifying their respective drafts of a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) and setting bilateral draft meetings before the fourth round of formal talks. If the meetings progress well, the CASER may be readied for signing by the panels in six months, he added.
He likewise pointed out that the reciprocal working groups on political and constitutional reforms (CAPCR) have exchanged their initial drafts for a comprehensive agreement “ahead of schedule.” These drafts can be enriched and polished while the CASER is being negotiated. Once the CASER is signed, he added, the formal negotiation on the CAPCR may be completed in three months.
The advantage for the Filipino people of the two reform agreements being completed and signed by the panels and approved by the principals (the GRP president and the NDFP chairman) within two years, Sison explained, is that these can be implemented in the remaining four years of President Duterte’s term. If implemented to the satisfaction of the people, these accords shall lay the full basis for forging a Comprehensive Agreement on the End of Hostilities and Disposition of forces by 2021-2022. Thereafter a mutual amnesty can be issued for the benefit of both sides’ leaders, officers and troops.
The GRP panel head, Silvestre Bello III exuded hope that the two parties can hurdle the tasks set to be accomplished. He urged consideration for President Duterte’s wish that a bilateral ceasefire agreement be finalized and approved in the third round of negotiations. Let’s watch how this issue can be resolved.
Norway’s Ambassador Elizabeth Slattum, the third-party facilitator of the peace talks, responded with elation. Thumbing-up the panels’ preparatory work and show of amity and optimism at the opening ceremonies, she said:
“We commend the parties for doing exactly that: working together, despite disagreements, frustrations and outside pressure, showing courage, striving for progress on the substantive agenda items, with special focus on CASER in this round.”
Describing the peace negotiations as “joint problem-solving, working together towards a common goal,” she added: “If the peace talks fall apart, both parties lose, everybody loses.” She was seconded by the Norwegian Ambassador to the Philippines Erik Forner, who came to the Rome talks. “To overcome differences and to make lasting peace is not easy,” he remarked, but expressed confidence in the two parties’ commitment to move forward in the negotiations.
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Published in The Philippine Star
Jan. 21, 2017