March 16 marked the 20th year of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) by the peace panels of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). It culminated a series of formal talks held over 11 months (excluding suspensions and indefinite recesses) in The Netherlands.

CARHRIHL became binding and effective on the two Parties when it was signed by Mariano Orosa, NDFP chairperson, on April 10, 1998, and President Joseph Estrada on Aug. 7, 1998.

It is living proof that with the mutually agreed upon goal of attaining a just and lasting peace, together with enough goodwill and earnest effort on both sides, and despite seemingly irreconcilable positions, a bilateral agreement of far-reaching import as well as immediate benefit can be achieved.

This landmark Agreement seals the first of the four substantive agenda laid out by the two Parties; that is, human rights and international humanitarian law, socioeconomic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, and end of hostilities and disposition of forces. It has led to accelerated negotiations on the remaining items, in consecutive order, albeit haltingly and with great difficulty.

It may well be asked by well-meaning, if by now cynical, observers of the on-and-off peace talks between the GRP (now termed GPH) and the NDFP, what is the point of celebrating an Agreement that has been for the most part either ignored or observed in the breach?

In light of the thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings, displacement of civilians and illegal arrests in the course of the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs,” “all-out war” against communist rebels, and no-holds-barred military operations against supposed ISIS-inspired terrorists, of what use is CARHRIHL in rendering justice to victims of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law?

No matter how edifying, comprehensive and with actual mechanisms for implementation to boot, CARHRIHL appears now to be just a meaningless scrap of paper with little or no benefit to the people so long as it is not upheld by both sides.

Especially with the peace negotiations currently at an impasse, with the GPH saying that these are in fact terminated, what hope is there that the beneficial provisions of CARHRIHL can still be availed of by those adversely affected by the armed conflict and by those whose socioeconomic and civil and political rights are being trampled upon?

Peace advocates from a broad array of organizations — the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), Pilgrims for Peace, Sulong CARHRIHL, Philippine Peace Center, Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation (OSB) and ACT for Peace — together with enthusiastic students of St. Scholastica College took the time last Friday to find answers to these questions as they commemorated this historic event.

In his keynote speech, staunch peace advocate Bishop Emeritus Deogracias Iñiguez, gave voice to his fellow advocates’ unequivocal stand that CARHRIHL remains relevant to the situation of armed conflict and rampant violations of HR and IHL in the country today. He underscored the view that the people stand to gain much from CARHRIHL’s implementation by both Parties. He also emphasized that CARHRIHL has an important role to play in breaking the current impasse in the peace negotiations.

Bishop Iñiguez reminded everyone how, in the past 20 years since CARHRIHL was inked, it has served as an instrument to strengthen trust and confidence between the two Parties, generate goodwill and a conducive climate for the peace talks, and thus pave the way to fruitful negotiations on basic social and economic reforms.

Concretely, under the auspices of CARHRIHL, the GPH has released political prisoners (including NDFP consultants) while the NDFP has released captive police and military personnel in order for the peace talks to get back on track and overcome obstacles or deadlocks, even suspensions.

An example of an actual benefit derived from CARHRIHL is the indemnification of tens of thousands of human rights victims under the fascist Marcos dictatorship that the NDFP had consistently and persistently championed. The GPH delivered on its commitment to pass a law providing for such.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that there remains a huge gap between the good provisions of CARHRIHL and what is happening in actuality. And while its implementation has served as a confidence-building and goodwill measure for the peace talks and is beneficial to the people, the opposite is also true. Non-adherence to CARHRIHL and continuing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have served to poison the atmosphere for peace talks. Neither has such helped to resolve the roots of armed conflict; instead, it has only exacerbated the sufferings and calamitous situation of affected communities.

The head of the NDFP peace panel, Fidel Agcaoili, sent a message to the commemoration while the GPH was a no-show. Mr. Agcaoili highlighted, among many violations of CARHRIHL by the GPH, its petition to proscribe the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA (New People’s Army) — component revolutionary organizations under the umbrella of the NDFP — as “terrorist organizations,” the inclusion of more than 600 individuals in the Department of Justice “terrorist list” together with the arrest and continuing detention of NDFP consultants on trumped-up charges of common crimes. Agcaoili welcomed the call for the full implementation of CARHRIHL and the resumption of peace negotiations.

A 14-year-old girl named Carhrihl (after the Agreement) capped the program with a strong appeal for a return to peace talks to arrive at a just and lasting peace. When she was much younger, she confessed, she didn’t understand why her parents gave her the name and what it meant. She lamented that her friends mispronounced and misspelled her name all the time. Only when she herself became a youth activist did she begin to appreciate CARHRIHL and to learn the importance of fighting for human rights.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.

Published in Business World
March 19, 2018

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