A little vague but not unconstitutional

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro forged between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a modest but essential beginning, a road map to a shared vision of peace, a declaration of principles to be fleshed out in four annexes and in a final peace agreement “by the end of the year.” But it is not comprehensive, complete and final. Much more work needs to be done.

ARMM replacement. Essentially, the Framework Agreement ushers in the Bangsamoro as the new political unit to “replace” the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which President Aquino described as a “failed experiment.”

For the uninitiated, let me explain that our country is divided into provinces, municipalities and cities. For administrative convenience, these local government units (LGUs) are grouped into 17 regions (like Region I for the Ilocos, Region II for Cagayan Valley, etc.).

However, the regions do not have any governmental structures and separate officials to which the LGUs are answerable. Instead, the LGUs are autonomous, subject only to the supervision of the President through the Department of Interior and Local Government. But in the new region contemplated in the Framework Agreement, the LGUs will be reporting to the Bangsamoro.

According to the Framework Agreement, “the government of the Bangsamoro shall have a ministerial form.” In effect, it creates a new layer of governance, which—by a new statute to be called “Bangsamoro Basic Law”—would be granted the “authority to regulate on its own responsibility the affairs of the constituent units” in the Bangsamoro. During a plebiscite, the voters in these constituent or local government units will be given the chance to affirm or refuse their inclusion in the new region.

Constitutionality and legality. Critics say that the Framework Agreement is incomplete because the annexes have not been agreed upon and some provisions and words are vague or slippery. True, such inadequacies must be addressed quickly, but they do not make it unconstitutional.

To stress, the Framework Agreement is a work in progress. Most of its provisions are not self-executory and are not the sources of specifically enforceable rights. While it provides a road map, the details—to repeat—will still have to be spelled out and the vague provisions and words clarified in four annexes and in a final peace agreement to be negotiated and concluded by the end of the year.

It is these annexes and final agreement, plus the Bangsamoro Basic Law yet to be enacted, that could (again, could) be the sources of illegality and unconstitutionality. But at this stage, any charge of unconstitutionality, in my humble view, is premature and at best speculative.

The Constitution (Art. X, Sec. 15 to 21) expressly authorizes the creation of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao “consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as the territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Nothing in the Constitution bars the installation of a ministerial form of local governance in the autonomous region. It merely provides that the “organic act (or basic law) shall define the basic structure of government for the region consisting of the executive department and the legislative assembly, both of which shall be elective and representative of the constituent units.” Only in the national level does the Charter mandate a presidential, not parliamentary, system.

Unlike the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) crafted in 2008 also between the Philippine government and the MILF, the Framework Agreement does not create a separate state with its own territory, people, government and sovereignty. Instead, the Framework Agreement recognizes the overarching power and authority of Philippine laws and institutions, and implicitly recognizes the Constitution’s supremacy.

For example, the President, through an executive order, will create the Transition Commission; and Congress shall enact the basic law that will govern the Bangsamoro region. Also, while the Bangsamoro “may create its own auditing body and procedures for accountability… [t]his shall be without prejudice to the power, authority and duty of the national Commission on Audit to examine, audit and settle all accounts…”

More work ahead. I think that the chief negotiators, Marvic Leonen (ably backed by Secretary Teresita Deles) of the Philippine government and Mohagher Iqbal of the MILF were keenly aware of the Supreme Court’s decision in “North Cotabato vs Government” (Oct. 14, 2008) that struck down the MOA-AD.

The decision, penned by Justice (now Ombudsman) Conchita Carpio Morales, delineated the “extent of the powers of the President in pursuing the peace process” and stressed the “duty of officialdom” to follow strictly the Constitution and to consult the affected people.

In sum, the Framework Agreement is an auspicious beginning. But it is not enough to bring the lasting peace our people crave and deserve. The details will have to be carefully spelled out in the four annexes and final agreement. Dean Leonen, who has obviously earned the trust of President Aquino and MILF Chair Murad Ibrahim, will now have to work even harder to finish the preliminary work he has started. His tiptoeing skills will all the more be needed in negotiating these sensitive documents and in navigating the contemplated Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress.

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