December 11, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

On the GRP-NDFP Interim Joint Cease-fire Agreement

The April 7 newspaper headline “No cease-fire yet -- Dureza,” referring to Presidential peace process adviser Jesus G. Dureza, is a cautionary note. In fact, National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) Panel Chairperson Fidel V. Agcaoili said in his April 5 Press Statement: “This is not yet a cease-fire agreement.” Indeed, the fine print of the Agreement on an Interim Joint Cease-fire (AIJC) indicates that the interim cease-fire has yet to be “put in effect” and that this shall be “upon approval and signing of the guidelines and ground rules for the implementation of the agreement” to be “finalized” by the respective Cease-fire Committees of the two Negotiating Panels. The two Committees are directed “to meet even in between formal talks,” with the Fifth Round already scheduled for May 26 to June 2, 2007 in the same Dutch venue. But there is no clear time frame “to put into effect the cease-fire,” it depends “upon approval and signing of the guidelines and ground rules.”

At the same time, NDFP Media Office Press Statements on April 5 and NDFP Chief Political Consultant Prof. Jose Maria Sison’s Closing Remarks on April 6, as well as the joint statement of the GRP and the NDFP, articulate or reflect the latter’s view that securing the approval of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), the second substantive agreement (out of four envisioned), “should be a step ahead of the joint cease-fire agreement, unless these agreements can be signed at the same time by the panels and then by the principals.” This assertion is however not born out by the AIJC itself, nor by the section “On Cease-fire” in the Joint Statement. It is like one team moving the goal posts in the middle of a football game.

The closest in the AIJC correlating it to the CASER is the third listed objective of the AIJC which is “To provide an enabling environment for eventual and early signing of the CASER.” In fact, the connotation of this objective is that a cease-fire should already be put into effect ahead of the CASER precisely “to provide an enabling environment” for achieving the CASER.

The two sides say that their current non-reinstatement of their respective unilateral cease-fires, despite their agreement in the Utrecht Joint Statement of March 11 to reinstate them before the scheduled Fourth Round, is in line with the AIJC second objective of “forging a more stable and comprehensive Joint Cease-fire Agreement,” in short, a bilateral cease-fire. That is well and good, but what happens in the meantime to address continuing armed hostilities and their likely disenabling impact on the peace talks based on long and bitter experience? Statements from the NDFP side say that the “CASER is expected to be finished within the year.”

But lest expectations be unduly raised, the experience, nay history, would indicate the likelihood of longer, indeed prolonged or protracted, negotiations on complex and contentious substantive agenda items which are much more than catch-words like Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ARRD) and National Industrialization and Economic Development (NIED).

It took most of the six years of the Ramos administration (1992-1998) to achieve the first and so far only substantive agreement in 25 years, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) -- a subject where there is much more commonality between the parties than there is on socioeconomic reforms and politico-constitutional reforms.

What happens if the negotiations on the CASER are not finished within the year? Does this mean that a cease-fire cannot yet be put into effect even if the two Cease-fire Committees have finalized the guidelines and ground rules for approval and signing? Will that be signed only after the signing of the CASER as the NDFP asserts? What if, “for any reason we cannot foresee now,” no CASER is signed?

By the terms of the GRP-NDFP Agreement on an Interim Joint Cease-fire (AIJC), it should be “put into effect upon approval and signing of the guidelines and ground rules” to be “finalized” by the respective Cease-fire Committees of the two Negotiating Panels. There is nothing in its terms about awaiting the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) as is being asserted by the NDFP. If the “eventual and early signing of the CASER” is an objective as well as expectation, then why hold in abeyance the putting into effect of the cease-fire which would even “provide an enabling environment” for an earlier successful completion of that CASER negotiation?

If that is the expectation, why allow the expected loss of precious lives from continuing armed hostilities in the meantime? Would those irretrievably lost lives not be in the nature of “unnecessary sacrifices” which “we should do our best to avoid?”

This is unfortunately one simple but important objective which the AIJC missed stating, even if it naturally follows from the nature of a cease-fire as a temporary cessation of armed hostilities: to avoid the loss of life, aside of course from other losses of an economic nature. This speaks to how much or how little we value fellow human life, which involves the most basic human right to life.

NDFP Chief Political Consultant Prof. Jose Maria Sison in his Closing Remarks at the Fourth Round of Formal Talks said: “The cease-fire agreement is necessary and of high importance. But far more important and decisive in realizing a just and lasting peace is the adoption and implementation of basic social, economic and political reforms that are needed and demanded by the Filipino people.”

NDFP Panel Chairperson Fidel V. Agcaoili for his part said that “the issue of cease-fire should not be pursued as an end in itself and that cease-fires, whether unilateral or bilateral or joint, are just a means to an end. Their main purpose is to create conditions conducive to reaching agreements on basic reforms that are satisfactory to both sides.”

While there is truth, especially at the conceptual level, in those statements, it should not be as if cease-fires and substantive reforms are being counter-posed to each other, instead of being seen and treated as integral parts of one process or continuum. There is a palpable downgrading of and hesitance for cease-fires on the part of NDFP partisans when they make such above-quoted remarks or other ones such as “The aim of the talks is not just to end the fighting but also to address the roots of the armed conflict... a premature cease-fire... won’t help” and “it is not decisive in the continuation of the peace talks... it may provide a conducive environment for peace talks, but it can be used by the militarist elements in government to sabotage the peace process.”

Indeed, peace is more than the absence of war, but it definitely includes the absence of war aside from the presence or institutionalization of a sufficient measure of social justice. In terms of process, as distinguished from outcome, peace is preferably achieved by peaceful means such as political negotiations. The means are just as important as the ends because the means often shape the contours or content of the ends.

As for “the serious concerns that have been raised in relation to the previous six-month unilateral cease-fires,” the AIJC should have at least provided in all seriousness for a good though relatively quick review of the previous unilateral interim cease-fires, ideally with the assistance of independent experts and civil society peace advocates. The sudden reciprocal terminations of the latter despite “the Successful Third Round of Formal Talks” in Rome last January were to us what were premature, not the cease-fires.

From our distance, as well as the observation of many others, those reciprocal unilateral interim cease-fires appear to have been basically holding.

At least between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), there were no notable armed hostilities and consequent casualties during that six-month cease-fire.

That the unilateral interim cease-fires were not unduly problematic for the peace process is perhaps further shown by the agreement by panel representatives to reinstate them before the scheduled fourth round of talks in April 2017 per the Utrecht Joint Statement of March 11.

To the credit of the NDFP, they announced that they were ready to declare such a cease-fire not later than March 31. But when the GRP side did not follow suit in what NDFP Panel Chairperson Agcaoili described as “constituting an unexpected departure from the March 11 backchannel agreement” in a March 31 press statement, the NDFP seemed too “willing to be flexible regarding interim cease-fire.” There was no NDFP resistance to this unexpected departure from a most recent agreement, unlike when it came to other unexpected departures in the past like President Duterte’s scrapping of the peace talks last February.

Again to the NDFP’s credit, Agcaoili then proposed “that simultaneous and reciprocal declarations of unilateral cease-fire can be agreed upon and bound by the Joint Statement at the end of the fourth round of formal talks.” But no cease-fire declarations ensued therefrom.

In the absence thereof and pending the putting into effect of the AIJC, the parties should have at least incorporated this missing clause into the AIJC, adapted from the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “The parties are obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of this interim joint cease-fire agreement prior to its being put into effect.

Military commanders have said that military operations will continue against the NPA despite the signing of an agreement to forge a joint interim cease-fire, unless ordered to stop by President Duterte.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) for its part, on the occasion of the 48th anniversary of the NPA last March 29, and on the eve of the Fourth Round of Formal Talks, issued a deliberately delayed Communique on the CPP Second Congress held several months earlier in the fourth quarter of 2016. It reaffirmed, among others, in an elaborated preamble of no less than its Constitution, “its strategy and tactics for advancing protracted people’s war and waging armed struggle as principal form of struggle.”

Is this really the Viacrusis, as it were, that addresses the roots of the armed conflict, or is it the peace negotiations, or both? This has to be correlated with the current course of the “talking while fighting” mode that appears to have deftly reasserted itself in the GRP-NDFP front of war and peace -- regarding which we cannot yet say Consummatum Est.

Soliman M. Santos, Jr. is a Judge of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Naga City, Camarines Sur. He is a long-time human rights and international humanitarian law lawyer, and legal scholar; and peace advocate.