The Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) was signed by the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines on March 16, 1998. It was a landmark agreement unique in the history of civil wars worldwide. But 13 years hence, its implementation has barely passed through the first stage and the peace talks continue to flounder.
MANILA — Lorena “Aya” Santos remembers one of the last times she talked to her Tatay (father). She told him about her budding relationship with the man she eventually married. She recalls how Leo Velasco, her father and reportedly a Communist Party of the Philippines central committee member, smiled and told her he understood.
On February 19, 2007, Velasco was abducted in Cagayan de Oro City, allegedly a victim of enforced disappearance. In November of the same year Aya’s mother, Elizabeth Principe, was herself abducted in Cubao, Quezon City. Principe was alleged to be a top communist in Cagayan Valley.
While leading the campaign for the surfacing of Velasco, Aya has since become the spokesperson of Desaperacidos, the nationwide alliance of families of the disappeared. While happy that her Nanay was released in July 2009 and participated in the February 2011 Government of the Philippines (GPH)-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) formal peace talks in Oslo, Norway, she is still looking for her father.
“There is never a day when I do not miss or think of my father,” Aya said.
In Oslo last February, she would have wanted Velasco to be with Principe as two of the NDFP consultants present. In the said talks, both parties agreed on the possibility of discussing the more than five thousand complaints of human rights violations lodged before their Joint Monitoring Committee. Instead, Velasco is one of hundreds who remain missing and his case is not being talked about because of the latest impasse in the peace negotiations.
Aya thinks that her father’s disappearance would only be discussed if the GPH-NDFP peace talks would resume.
The peace process and human rights
Aya’s hope is shared by several sectors: that the resumption of formal peace talks between the GPH and the NDFP would address human rights violations.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) was signed on March 16, 1998. The agreement has since been affirmed by the parties within the year with then President Joseph Estrada signing in behalf of the GPH.
The CARHRIHL is a landmark agreement unique in the history of civil wars worldwide. It recognizes that “the prolonged armed conflict in the Philippines necessitates the application of the principles of human rights and the principles of international humanitarian law and the faithful compliance therewith by both Parties.” (CARHRIHL, Part I, Article 6). Following such recognition, both the Manila Government and the NDFP bound themselves to “this Agreement in order to affirm their constant and continuing mutual commitment to respect human rights and the principles of international humanitarian law and hereby recognize either Party’s acts of good intention to be bound by and to comply with the principles of international humanitarian law.” (CARHRIHL, Part I, Article 7).
The Agreement was meant to prevent human rights violations by both parties and, in cases of its occurrence, provide a mechanism to investigate them. In June 2004, a joint secretariat for the GPH-NDFP Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) was formed, with offices in Cubao, Quezon City. The committee is a pioneering mechanism tasked to investigate cases of human rights violations against both combatants and civilians committed in the conduct of war.
The GPH-NDFP peace negotiations is unique in all the world as it supposedly addresses the issue of human rights as the first substantive agenda of the peace process between two warring parties. But under both Arroyo and Aquino administrations, many human rights violations have been reported.
Following the formal talks in February, the JMC was able to meet for the first time since its establishment in 2004. But the JMC’s operationalization has not gone beyond initial discussions of working guidelines for future investigations of human rights violations. The scuttling of scheduled GPH-NDFP talks in June has prevented the JMC from meeting again in July.
“Since its inception in 2004, the JMC was limited to the reception and referral of human rights violations complaints against both parties,” GPH Nominated Section chairperson Chito Gascon said. He also revealed that of the more than 5,000 cases of violations, more than 75 percent are against the GPH. “Since 2004, however, no single case has been discussed. In other words, it is incomplete,” he added.
Continuing human rights violations
Under the Aquino administration, human rights violations continue. In its yearend report, Karapatan or the People’s Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights revealed that there have been 64 victims of extrajudicial killings, nine victims of enforced disappearances, 51 victims of torture, more than 4,000 victims of demolition of homes, 135 victims of illegal arrest and detention.
The group said Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan is just a sugar-coated version of Bantay Laya, in that it claims it is for winning the peace but it targets perceived enemies of the state (such as activists) for elimination.
International watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said President Aquino has yet to address campaign commitments such as abolishing private armies, providing justice for human rights abuses and address impunity by the police and military.
“President Aquino came into office with a mandate to abolish abusive forces and pursue justice for serious abuses, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said. “President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines has done little during his first year in office to carry out his campaign commitments to justice for rights violations and to dismantle “private armies,” the group added.
Amnesty International, for its part, said “Aquino has shown that human rights are still not a priority for his administration,” said Aurora Parong, director of Amnesty International Philippines. “For the past year Aquino has been saying that he inherited these human rights problems from his predecessor. But after a full year in charge, it is time for him to take responsibility for protecting the human rights of Filipinos.
Aya said she expected that the Aquino government would be different from its predecessor with regards human rights. She thought that there might be a possibility that the human rights violations would be addressed and stopped, more so when the GPH agreed to the resumption of the formal peace talks with the NDFP.
But the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) dismissed the statements of human rights groups.
“(They are) Not true. It is the CPP-NPA-NDF(P) that is committing the human rights violations,” AFP public information office chief Colonel Arnulfo Burgos Jr said.
“The NPA is the one using landmines, recruiting minors, committing extortion, kidnapping and abduction. Lagi iyan! (It is always the case!)” he said. The army officer specifically referred to Lingig, Surigao del Sur Mayor Henry Dano and his two bodyguards who were held by the NPA in August 6 and released last October 9.
Burgos claims that the AFP is open to immediate investigations of reported human rights violations committed by the military. He said the AFP has established a human rights office that “works in coordination with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).”
Burgos said he regrets that there is a “one-sided application” of human rights standards and signed agreements such as the CARHRIHL.
“I do not see any form of compliance by the CPP-NPA-NDF(P) and even the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), so why are they just accusing the AFP?” he asked.
Gascon said that while the Aquino government is more serious and sincere in pursuing the peace process with the Left compared to the previous administration, he admitted that the CARHRIHL may only be more effective if both parties remain on the negotiating table.
“We are trying our level best to comply with the CARHRIHL and other human rights obligations. But the agreement is just a section of the final peace agreement. Until a full agreement is reach or the (GPH-NDFP) panel-to-panel talks progress, there will be very little opportunity for the JMC to do its work,” he said.
But NDFP Negotiating Panel chairperson Luis Jalandoni said the GPH is making it difficult for the peace process to move forward.
“I have written GPH Negotiating Panel chairperson Alexander Padilla last August 7 proposing that we resume formal talks in September 12 to 24. A major portion of the talks would take up socio-economic reforms and JASIG (Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees) issues, such as the disappearance of Leo Velasco, among others.”
“All of a sudden,” Jalandoni said, “President Aquino and executive secretary Edwin Lacierda accused the NDFP of insincerity, saying we do not want peace, only the release of our consultants.”
These statements were followed by the military’s vehement opposition to the release of NDFP consultants, saying they were simply criminal elements and Padilla’s claim that the JASIG is already inoperative, Jalandoni added.
“We want to continue the peace process to address the root causes of the armed conflict. But there must be compliance and respect to agreements signed such as the JASIG and the CARHRIHL,” he said.
The NDFP eventually announced a notice of delay last October 11 to the latest scheduled formal talks on October 31, after the GPH failed to release all or most of the jailed NDFP consultants, as stipulated in the February 2011 Oslo Joint Statement.
“President Aquino should show political will. He can’t let the military speak for the government on the issue of the peace process,” Jalandoni said.
In a statement last October 25, the NDFP said that Aquino “is merely pretending to be for peace negotiations in order to camouflage the extremely brutal military operations of Oplan Bayanihan and his actual instructions to (Teresita) Ging Deles, secretary of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process to invalidate all previous agreements of the GPH/GRP with the NDFP and (even) the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).”
Addressing human rights violations through the peace process is a task both parties have taken upon themselves to undertake in the course of war. But, at the moment, it is taking a backseat as the NDFP and the GPH are still accusing each other of violating signed agreements. The agreements, like the CARHRIHL, seem to be clear to all, but its implementation has been problematic. Nearly two decades after The Hague Joint Declaration of 1992 that set parameters in the peace talks, the GPH and the NDFP still have to agree on basic principles and concepts they undertook to jointly define.
The GPH believes that only the absence of conflict would stop violations to human rights.
“So long as there is conflict, there will always be circumstances that can be perceived as human rights violations,” Gascon said.
The NDFP disagrees by saying that unless the government addresses the root causes of conflict there will always be armed resistance by the people. In the meantime, the GPH should implement agreements hammered out in the peace process, such as respecting human rights, the NDFP said.
Aya is saddened that human rights remain as one of the casualties as the peace process flounders. “This means that human rights and socio-economic reforms will not be discussed anytime soon,” she said.
Meanwhile, she would give birth to her and her husband’s son in a few weeks’ time. “I do not know if my son would ever get to meet his grandfather. But I will raise him knowing why Leo Velasco lived the way he did, why his grandfather was made a victim of enforced disappearance, and why his mother chose to become a human rights defender.”
Aya is not giving up on the peace process entirely though. “I have not lost hope that the peace process would give justice to the victims, just as I have not lost hope that I will see my father again someday,” she said.
This article is the author’s output during the Graciano Lopez Jaena Community Journalism Workshop. The workshop was organized by the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communications in cooperation with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and Southeast Asian Press Alliance.