The momentarily disrupted work on the GRP-NDFP peace talks has continued. In eight days the 4th round of formal negotiations will take place in Norway (April 2-6). This time the talks will not be in Oslo but in a town called Noordwijk.
The change in the venue seems aimed at providing a fresh atmosphere for non-adversarial negotiations to proceed on the primordial agenda of social and economic reforms and on the sensitive matter of forging a viable interim bilateral ceasefire agreement for the duration of the peace talks.
Recall that in early February the volatile President blusteringly cancelled the GRP-NDFP peace talks he had revived in August and let loose his war-making impulse. Taking the cue, his defense secretary declared an “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA. Then early this month, while having signalled he would pursue the peace talks, Mr. Duterte “meantime” reinforced the aggressive campaign with express permission to the AFP and PNP to use all their “assets” in waging it.
That has set off more aerial bombings of communities in the hinterlands across the country, using warplanes and helicopter gunships, aside from artillery bombardments from AFP field units on the ground. Such combined bombings – supposedly launched under the rubric of “focused operations” with “surgical” accuracy – have had little, if any, effect against NPA combatants, according to reports. Instead, as documented by human rights groups, the aerial assaults have caused increasing numbers of civilians to flee back again to evacuation centers. Many rural homes get flattened or burned. The farmers’ crops are damaged, and other sources of livelihood are seriously disrupted.
In brief, aerial bombings are causing much “collateral damage” (a term coined by so-called US counterinsurgency experts). Having anticipated these, President Duterte even offered apologies in advance to the civilians who would be adversely affected by his orders to his soldiers to go ahead and “flatten the hills.”
But would that advance apology suffice to make up for the damages inflicted upon his impoverished constituencies whose lives he had vowed to uplift? Moreover, Mr. Duterte would also have realized by now that flying aircraft and dropping bombs and rockets entails more financial costs for the government and the people than whatever gains are expected in this all-out war. Hadn’t he said that rather than buy bullets he would prefer to buy machineries and give them away to help the poor?
This mode of war will continue until otherwise ordered by the AFP chief of staff, Gen. Eduardo Ano, says the armed forces spokesman. Or until the two sides shall have reinstated their respective unilateral ceasefire declarations before the formal negotiations begin on April 2. (The earlier ceasefires had been in effect between August 2016 and February 2017.) The reinstatement was agreed upon in a joint statement issued in Utrecht, the Netherlands last March 11, after successful back-channel talks initiated by Mr. Duterte.
Within the next eight days, other steps agreed upon are expected to be taken, mainly by the government, such as the following: 1) releasing an NDFP consultant arrested in Davao City in February to join the 4th round of negotiations; 2) ensuring the continued participation in the talks of 19 NDFP consultants and staff released in August (but ordered rearrested in February) by taking all legal means to enable their “free and unhindered movement;” 3) releasing three NDFP consultants convicted of common crimes through presidential pardon also to enable them to join the Norway talks; and 4) exerting best efforts to effect the release, on or before April 2, of 19 aged, sickly and long-detained political prisoners on humanitarian grounds.
All these commitments by the GRP panel comply with the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees and the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law – both reaffirmed by the two parties a second time on March 11 along with all previously signed agreements and joint statements.
Giving impetus to the continuation of the peace negotiations are the exhaustive efforts and sustained financing by the Royal Norwegian Government, which has acted as third-party facilitator since 2004. The Norwegians have harnessed the cooperation of the Dutch government in facilitating the safe entry into and exit from the Netherlands of NDFP participants in the peace talks.
It’s now appropriate for the Duterte government to give full rein to what presidential adviser Jesus G. Dureza calls the President’s “passion for peace” towards fulfilling his campaign promise to continue and complete the GRP-NDFP formal peace negotiations. After all, the administration’s Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, approved recently, cites the attainment of just and lasting peace as its first “cross-cutting bedrock strategizing” target.
On its part, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines has responded with an unprecedented show of cooperation with Mr. Duterte. It has agreed to accelerate the pace of the negotiations. In the past three rounds of talks it made sure draft agreements were completed as to make it probable for the key agreements on social and economic reforms and on political and constitutional reforms to be sealed within the first half of Mr. Duterte’s term. That could enable the two sides to initially implement the agreements, and thus provide immediate benefits to the Filipino people.
The NDFP has also conceded, however problematical as it turned out to be, to the reciprocal unilateral ceasefire declarations which held for five months. It has agreed to mutually reinstate these before the start of the fourth round of talks, and to resolve the issues raised during the five months as it negotiates the terms of reference of a bilateral interim ceasefire agreement.
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Published in The Philippine Star
March 25, 2017