Deeper look into why gov’t postponed the peace talks

For now it looks like the fifth formal round of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations under the current administration – bilaterally set for June 28-30 but unilaterally postponed indefinitely by President Duterte on June 14 – may be resumed after three months. That is, in the last quarter of this year.

In the meantime, the two negotiating panels have reiterated their commitments to all signed agreements, and expressed their intentions to conduct separate unilateral consultations and “in due course, bilateral consultations.” They’ll do so according to their respective needs, and as mandated by their respective principals based on existing agreements. They also have signified mutual determination “to overcome obstacles and impediments to the peace negotiations.”

On its part, the NDFP panel will continue holding consultations on the outstanding issues on its draft Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), which has been published in book form and publicly disseminated. The CASER is the main agenda of the formal negotiations.
This much can be gleaned from the respective press statements issued on June 21 by Fidel V. Agcaoili, head of the NDFP peace panel, and Hernani Braganza, GRP panel member, after their fifth informal/backchannel meeting in Utrecht, The Netherlands, on June 18-20. Present in the meeting was the Royal Norwegian Government third-party facilitator, special envoy Idun Tvedt.

Braganza headed the GRP panel team in four rounds of informal/backchannel discussions (held in April, May and June in Utrecht) with the NDFP team led by Agcaoili. The discussions resulted in finalizing three documents (two signed, one initialed) aimed at enabling the formal negotiations to move forward. He returned this week to Utrecht to explain to the NDFP panel why Duterte was postponing the formal talks and to discuss the new schedule.

The three-day meeting began in earnest only after the GRP side had gotten a clarification from Malacanang that the Norwegian government would continue to be the third-party facilitator (TPF) in the peace talks. The clarification was necessary because media reports had quoted presidential spokesperson Harry Roque in a briefing that, in view of President Duterte’s wish to hold the negotiations in the Philippines, there would be no need for a TPF. But peace adviser Jesus Dureza, who was in Oslo on June 18, belied this and on his own affirmed Norway’s continuing role in the peace talks.

The role of the TPF, the NDFP panel explains, is “of key importance while there is need to hold formal peace negotiations in a foreign neutral venue in compliance with the pertinent provision of the 1995 Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantee (JASIG).” Malacanang’s clarification, in effect, negates Duterte’s plan to hold the formal negotiations here and does away with a potential impediment to the progress of the talks.

Another potential obstacle lurks in a point raised by Harry Roque. While Malacanang is using the three-month period to consult government agencies and the people about the peace process, he revealed, President Duterte intends to “personally review” all the previous agreements and find out “which were binding on (his) government” or if these agreements were binding on specific previous administrations.

Is Duterte contemplating to renege on certain previous agreements which his peace negotiators have repeatedly upheld in signed joint statements?
What immediately comes to mind is the JASIG, which Duterte, wittingly or unwittingly, has in many instances ignored or violated. For instance, to buttress his wish to hold the peace negotiations here, will he claim that JASIG is not binding on his administration but was specifically binding only on the Ramos administration because it was signed during the latter’s watch?

The rationale for the JASIG’s crafting – specifically its provision for a foreign neutral venue and safety and immunity guarantees for peace talks participants – was the NDFP’s own negative experience in 1986-87, when it agreed to hold the initial peace negotiations in the country. (I was then the chief NDFP negotiator.) It’s on public record that those initial talks were sabotaged and aborted by the military establishment (with Juan Ponce Enrile as defense secretary and General Fidel Ramos as AFP chief). The talks lasted for only about eight months, and were never revived under the Cory Aquino administration.

The arrangement then was like this: Sans a written agreement, the GRP issued “safe-conduct” passes for the NDFP negotiating panel, its regional representatives, and personnel. (Under JASIG, the NDFP panel issued documents of identification for its own negotiators, consultants, and personnel, providing copies to the GRP panel, the master copies held in a safe deposit box in The Hague).

The safe-conduct passes for the few NDFP negotiators were honored during the talks, but not for the others also involved. While the discreet talks were ongoing, the NDFP Cebu City representative, youth activist Jovito Plaza, was fatally shot by soldiers manning a checkpoint. The government had put one over the NDFP, Ramos crowed later, since the military had been able to identify and monitor Left personalities who had been designated NDFP representatives during the peace talks. Many were subsequently hunted down, some were killed, and others, arrested.

It’s not far-fetched that Duterte may also wish to review, and renege from, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, given his publicly expressed contempt for human rights defenders and advocates. He has put off fulfilling the GRP commitments under the accord. If he does that, it will doom the GRP-NDFP peace talks altogether.

As for the three-month period of suspension of the formal talks, the proposal came from the military, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said the initial proposal was for six months. The request for the postponement, he told Rappler, is “so that the AFP can look into the ramifications of the stand down [a temporary ceasefire agreement signed on June 8] and the ensuing ceasefire [a “coordinated unilateral ceasefire” to replace the stand down] on its security operations.” He added that the AFP will submit its recommendations within the three-month period.

Duterte’s adopting the three-month suspension speaks of how the military’s view has swayed his stand on the peace talks since February 2017. But it also reflects the AFP’s own misgivings about having a ceasefire with the New People’s Army – which it has pushed from the very start of the current peace talks in August 2017: it now complains that the NPA used the previous reciprocal unilateral ceasefire (August 27, 2016-February 3, 2017) to expand and consolidate its forces. Mind that the latter acts are not armed offensive operations which are prohibited in a ceasefire.


Published in Philippine Star
June 23, 2018

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