Focusing on core agenda, peace talks forge ahead


Having done their assigned tasks to move forward on the most substantive agenda of the GRP-NDFP peace talks, the two parties met this week in Rome for their third round of formal negotiations under the Duterte administration. It wasn’t easy sailing: the NDFP side described as “difficult” the five-day discussions; the GRP side deemed them “exacting.” Still, both concluded this round was a success.

On the table are social and economic reforms – referred to as the “meat” of the peace talks that basically address the root causes of the 48-year ongoing armed conflict – and the corresponding political and constitutional reforms needed to accomplish them.

With forbearance and perseverance, the parties devoted time to again discuss and seek to resolve the outstanding issue: releasing all political prisoners, through a presidential amnesty (offered by President Duterte in May) and other legal means, in compliance with the CARHRIHL, the first major agreement signed in 1998. They also took up complaints of alleged violations of the five-month-running reciprocal unilateral ceasefire declarations that the NDFP warned “increasingly endanger the peace negotiations.”

A January 25 eight-page joint statement has been issued, containing the positive results of the various bilateral discussions by the panels and their respective reciprocal working committees (RWCs) on social and economic reforms, reciprocal working groups (RWGs) on political and constitutional reforms, and other working bodies. For the readers to appreciate the range of issues and often tedious ways of negotiations participated in and witnessed by 126 Filipinos – 70 on the GRP side, 56 on the NDFP’s – let me present them concisely in this limited column space.

In the pre-agenda talks, teams discussed the political prisoners release and general amnesty proclamation; interim bilateral ceasefire; and carrying out of a May 16, 1998 agreement to support the implementation of socio-economic projects of private development organizations and institutions (that have been hampered by counterinsurgency operations).

The parties agreed to study the issuance of an amnesty proclamation “consequent to substantial progress in the peace negotiations.” The GRP panel committed to facilitate the release of the three remaining NDFP consultants and to work out, together with the defense lawyers, the release of the 392 prisoners on the NDFP list, starting with 200 through bail, recognizance, pardon, and other legal means in compliance with the CARHRIHL.

Furthermore, the parties agreed to strengthen compliance with the CARHRIHL by signing the supplementary guidelines for the Joint Monitoring Committee, in addition to those signed in 2004. These will fully “operationalize” the work of the JMC in monitoring the CARHRIHL’s full implementation.

On the substantive agenda, the parties gained momentum in their work as follows:

– The RWCs on social and economic reforms completed their respective draft comprehensive agreement (CASER), 10 days before the start of the third round of talks. They reaffirmed their April 2004 consensus on the preamble and declaration of principles as CASER framework and raised to the panels for resolution new and unresolved provisions.
Discussions were held on agrarian reform and rural development. One notable development was their common agreement, in principle, to the free distribution of land to farmers and farm workers as part of the CASER framework.

To facilitate future discussions, the RWCs agreed to form bilateral teams to help resolve contentious provisions in their respective drafts by submitting recommendations thereto, and signed the ground rules for the conduct of discussions during the fourth round of talks to be held in Oslo in early April.

On political and constitutional reforms, the RWGs held two bilateral meetings, exchanged full drafts on a tentative comprehensive agreement (CAPCR) – again, ahead of the agreed schedule. They exchanged initial views, comments and questions on each other’s drafts, including an exchange of thoughts on the proposed federal form of government and the need for certain constitutional guarantees and safeguards. Each side presented a comparative matrix on the two drafts, agreeing to hold further unilateral or bilateral meetings to rewrite their respective drafts and matrices.

In the panels’ first working session, the NDFP raised the following issues to the GRP:

– Urgent repeal of all remaining Marcos repressive decrees that are continually used against political prisoners and ordinary civilians. Moreover, the non-observance by the GRP of the Hernandez political offense doctrine, which in effect criminalizes acts in pursuance of one’s political beliefs, and worsens the HR-IHL violations;

– Perceived political rehabilitation of the dictator Marcos by burying his remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and its implication on rendering justice to the victims of human rights violations under his dictatorship;

– Incidents of AFP armed units occupying schools, barangay halls, and other civilian facilities in the rural communities as part of the GRP counterinsurgency plan Oplan Bayanihan; AFP violations of the spirit of the reciprocal ceasefires in more than 500 barangays across the country;

– Due-process issues in relation to the GRP’s anti-illegal drug campaign;

Continued detention of three NDFP consultants who’ve been promised presidential pardon and surveillance-harassment of released NDFP consultants participating in the peace talks.

The GRP panel responded with reassurances of the Duterte administration’s commitment to comply with its obligations under the CARHRIHL, saying that there’s no conscious government policy to violate the agreement. They urged the NDFP to put their complaints in writing for the GRP panel to study and take action, and assured the release of the three remaining NDFP consultants. As for the presence of AFP troops in rural communities, they were said to be escorting civilian agencies providing services to the communities “upon request of local government units.”

Regarding the controversial Marcos burial, the GRP panel denied any intent to politically rehabilitate the dictator, and pointed out that President Duterte has taken a direct hand in expediting the processing of applications and immediate partial compensation of human rights violations victims (as cited in this space last week).

Overall, the two parties look forward to bigger advances in the fourth round of talks in April. The next two months will see whether decisive action will be taken for the release of prisoners, and to resolve questions about ceasefire violations. Such can greatly boost the prospects of the peace talks’ continuing success.

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Published in The Philippine Star
Jan. 27, 2017

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