ICHRP calls for continuation of GRP-NDFP Peace Talks

President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral declaration of an indefinite cancellation of peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) can still be opened for reconsideration.

The President’s order to arrest NDFP peace negotiators released on bail can be rescinded for substantial talks to continue.

Talks can still continue even as both unilateral ceasefire declarations have been lifted. This is not impossible. In fact, it has been the experience of many peace negotiations.

The current GRP-NDFP talks could either go down in ignominy or it can forge a new beginning in the country’s history.

Compelling reason for talks

There is compelling reason for the talks to continue.

It is to address the roots of the armed conflict, in a country mired by increasing poverty, widening inequity and worsening injustice. There is an urgent need to resolve the continuing socioeconomic and political crises that hinder genuine national development.

It is to the interest of the nation, the Filipino people, and the world’s peoples to pursue peace. The headway made at the resumption of peace talks in August last year firmly grounded the talks on the principles of sovereignty, democracy and social justice.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s cancellation of the talks was made, ironically, after the third round of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations held January 19-25, 2017 in Rome – at a point when substantial, accelerated and historic progress had been made.

For instance, during this round, members of both the panels worked together to finalize guidelines for the Joint Monitoring Committee of the CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law). This was an important product of the peace negotiations, as CARHRIHL is a key document that, if adhered to by all parties, would help to settle many of the problems plaguing the peace process, including the continuing detention of political prisoners, continuing human rights violations, and matters of implementation of the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG).

Moreover, progress was made in the discussion of the substantive portions of the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio Economic Reforms (CASER), which covered agrarian reform and rural development. The joint statement of the two panels stated that they “agreed in principle to the free distribution of land to farmers and farm workers as part of the governing frameworks of CASER.”

Significantly, this is a first in the country’s entire history and a precedent for other peace negotiations.

The forging and signing of the CASER would then form the basis for further agreements on political and constitutional reforms and further on to the end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

In the same round, both panels were also able to exchange their respective tentative drafts of the Comprehensive Agreement on Political and Constitutional Reforms (CAPCR), as well as their respective comparative matrices of these drafts.

We were excitedly looking forward to further positive developments in the peace process as the Negotiating Panels indicated to have their respective ceasefire committees meet in The Netherlands on 22-27 February 2017 to discuss their respective drafts of the bilateral ceasefire and have already set the next round of talks in Oslo, Norway on 2-6 April 2017.

Excitement gave way to grave disappointment, however, upon hearing President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements regarding the cancellation of the Peace Talks with the NDFP made February 4.

Worse, we have seen mainstream media highlighting skirmishes between government and rebel troops, ceasefire violations focusing on the killing of soldiers but largely ignoring the plight of communities affected by military and para-military operations.

On ceasefires and continuation of the talks

Ceasefires have been declared by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – New People’s Army (NPA) in the past in consideration of the people’s interests — either for the Yuletide season or in cases of calamities such as supertyphoon Yolanda requiring massive humanitarian efforts for relief and rehabilitation. The latest ceasefire is part of showing goodwill for the peace talks.

The announcement of lifting the ceasefire by the CPP-NPA effective February 10 this year, according to several statements of the CPP-NPA, was decided based on the people’s clamor for defense in the face of continuing military onslaughts in the guise of “peace and development”.

Indeed, we have been receiving news about continuing human rights violations in the country. The continuing civil-military operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), previously under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan (since 2017, dubbed as Oplan Kapayapaan), are patterned after the US-designed “whole-of-nation” approach in war and counter-insurgency. As a result, at least 20 farmers and indigenous peoples have been killed and thousands continuously harassed and displaced from their communities with the use of military and para-military forces in the last six months.

Reacting to the CPP-NPA-NDFP’s lifting of its unilateral ceasefire declaration, President Duterte chose to lift the GRP’s unilateral ceasefire as well. Much further than the mere lifting of the ceasefire order, however, he made several pronouncements canceling the peace talks altogether, named the CPP-NPA-NDFP “terrorists”, and even ordered the arrest of the JASIG protected NDFP negotiators, in clear violation of the content and intent of the JASIG.

As previously agreed by the GRP and the NDFP, the termination of the safety guarantees can only take effect 30 days after a party has officially informed the other of its termination. The purpose of this provision is to allow representatives of both parties to disengage and at the same time allow the terminating party an opportunity to change its mind and withdraw its termination.

Ceasefires have their pros and cons and should not be decisive in the continuation of peace talks. While a ceasefire may provide a conducive environment to the talks, it may also be used by militarist elements in the government to sabotage the peace process. We pray that the peace spoilers will not be successful in using the lifting of the ceasefires to lead to the termination of the peace talks.

A bumpy road to peace

More than a generation has been witness to past peace negotiations with the Philippine government.

The NDFP first entered into peace negotiations and a 60-day ceasefire with the government more than 30 years ago, in 1986. The talks collapsed after the bloody massacre of farmers at Mendiola in January 1987.

The government unsheathed the “sword of war” under the US low-intensity conflict using rabid anti-communist vigilante killings. Additional divisions were added to the armed forces.

Talks resumed in 1992 with the foundation for peace negotiations agreed upon in The Hague Joint Declaration. Talks made substantial progress with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) in 1998.

Further negotiations were terminated in July 1999 after the government approved the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US. Formal negotiations resumed in June 2001 but in February 2004, the talks recessed and later were suspended by the government.

In a post-9/11 “war on terror”, the US included in its listing as “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTOs) the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), its armed wing the New People’s Army (NPA), and the NDFP chief political consultant Prof. Jose Ma. Sison. The European Union immediately followed suit.

Three rounds of talks were held in 2004 but the GRP ordered a full reframing of the talks and unilaterally suspended the Joint Agreement of Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) in August 2005.

It took six years before GRP-NDFP talks resumed in 2011 but failed anew with the GRP’s non-compliance of the JASIG. By mid-2013, the GRP announced that they are no longer willing to return to the negotiating table. NDFP negotiators and consultants were harassed, arrested and detained.

First and foremost among the lessons is that the talks really need to address the fundamental causes of the armed conflict chiefly rooted in systemic poverty, inequity and injustice. Secondly, agreements made should be respected, implemented and complied with.

The GRP-NDFP Peace Talks under the Duterte administration have already made very important headway into the path to just and lasting peace. We hope that the latest hurdle will eventually be overcome.

Looking forward

There can only be a cessation of hostilities after social and economic reforms and constitutional and political reforms are tackled as earlier agreed upon and embodied in The Hague Declaration of 1992.

It is up to Pres. Duterte to make up his mind to continue and make further progress in the peace process by complying with previously signed agreements in the course of the GRP-NDFP peace talks.

The seeds to just and lasting peace can still be sown by this generation, within Pres. Duterte’s term, if he heeds the people’s undying cry for peace.

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines joins the Filipino progressive organizations, groups and individuals, from trade unions to farmers organizations to church groups and peace advocates, in clamoring for a return of both panels to the negotiating table.

International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. The ICHRP is a global network of organizations based outside of the Philippines, committed to campaigning for human rights and Filipino people's rights.