New hope for peace

The pursuit of peace always commands top priority in the agenda of every new president. This is why President Aquino set aside normal protocol and ventured to Tokyo recently to meet Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Indeed, the best way of ending violence, death, destruction and dislocation in our country, especially in Mindanao, is a negotiated peace accord.

Goals and methods. The most recent SWS survey shows that 83 percent of our people are “hopeful” of a peace agreement. However, this goal cannot be achieved unless it is pursued with methods that do not offend the Constitution and the law. Recall that three years ago, the signing in Kuala Lumpur (KL) of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the Arroyo government and the MILF, scheduled on Aug. 5, 2008, was stopped by a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court just the day before.

Two months later, on Oct. 14, 2008, the Court eventually scuttled the MOA-AD altogether in “North Cotabato v. Government.” The Court’s decision ably explained why the MOA-AD was botched, and why the lessons learned there should guide all future peace talks. To fulfill our people’s new hope for peace, let me discuss some of these lessons.

To begin with, our peace negotiators are mere agents of the President. Even if given full authority, they cannot have more powers than him. Aside from strictly following the mandates granted them by the President, they should see to it that peace agreements always conform to the Constitution and the law.

Does this mean that they cannot take up matters that require revisions in our Charter and statutes? Our negotiators may discuss matters outside the Constitution, like the grant of territory or sovereignty or even independence to the rebels. They may even believe that the way to peace impels amendments to our basic law. Nonetheless, they cannot unconditionally agree to change the Constitution or the laws. The process for amending the Charter or enacting laws must be respected. All they can commit is that they would propose to the proper authorities the constitutional or statutory changes needed. They can be creative and “think outside the box” but they cannot, on their own, act outside of it.

Novel solutions. By refusing to give the Bangsamoros the right to govern themselves independently, is the government not violating their right to self-determination? Note that this right is now considered a “generally accepted principle of international law” which our Constitution “adopts… as part of the law of the land.” Under this right, people “may freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Our Supreme Court said that the right to self-determination has two aspects, the internal and the external. Internal self-determination is fulfilled when a “people’s pursuit of political, economic, social and cultural development (is made) within the framework of an existing state.” Thus, the right excludes secession from—and respects the national integrity of—“existing states” like the Philippines.

On the other hand, citing the Canadian Supreme Court, our own Supreme Court ruled that the right to external self-determination or to political independence arises only when people are under colonial rule or are subjected to foreign domination. Since the Bangsamoros are not colonials and are moreover adequately represented in various echelons of the government, they are not entitled to external self-determination.

Having said that, may negotiators nevertheless entertain proposals for political independence a la East Timor vis-à-vis Indonesia? Yes, provided that such proposals should always be subject to constitutional processes. In the final analysis, radical proposals that impinge on the Constitution will have to be approved by our people in a plebiscite.

Right to information. Finally, negotiators must always observe: (1) the right to information, especially of the people directly affected by the peace process, and (2) the corresponding duty of public officers “to give information even if nobody demands it.”

Up to this writing, our peace panel has not divulged the details of the negotiations. It was Michael Mastura, a senior member of the MILF, who publicly said that the minimum, non-negotiable demand of the Bangsamoros is the creation of a “sub-state,” short of an independent state that they had originally demanded.

To date, the nuts and bolts of the vital negotiating points in the peace process have not been revealed. But beginning tomorrow when the negotiations are resumed in KL, our negotiators should start explaining the concept and extent of a “sub-state.”

The big lesson in the botched MOA-AD episode is that a peace agreement cannot just be sprung only at the last moment when it is about to be signed. Prior to the conclusion of any peace accord, the details must be progressively made known. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that all “matters of public concern … including steps and negotiations leading to the consummation of the (accord)”—not just the final agreement—must be revealed.

Like 83 percent of our people, I am hopeful that, finally and at last, our country will find the peace that has eluded it for many decades. Without lasting peace, the war on poverty cannot be won completely. Without lasting peace, liberty and prosperity cannot be achieved fully. Let us pray for the success of the peace process as it resumes tomorrow.

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