Kevin Sullivan assesses the prospects for settling long-running conflicts in the Philippines in the context of continuing human rights violations, including enforced disappearances
The announcement at the end of August that the Philippines Government and the National Democratic Front (NDFP) had signed an agreement enabling a permanent ceasefire, has been seen as a significant step forward, especially when viewed against the turbulent backdrop of President Rodrigo Duterte’s first months in office. A number of left-wing groups come under the NDFP banner, including the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army and the Moro Resistance and Liberation Organization. The August ceasefire agreement opens the way for intensive talks on political and constitutional reforms that could lead to the final settlement of a conflict that has gone on with varying degrees of intensity since 1968.
In addition to injecting momentum into the NDFP negotiations, the new administration in Manila has committed significant political capital to brokering a settlement with the faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari, which broke away from the terms of a 1996 peace settlement in 2013, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had already separated from the MNLF and which reached its own accommodation with the Government in a series of agreements between 2012 and 2014 – a deal placed in limbo by the failure of the Philippine Congress to pass enabling legislation before the end of Benigno Aquino’s presidential term in June. Like the NPA armed struggle, the Moro insurgency has been underway since the late 1960s. Estimates place the number of casualties from these interrelated conflicts at well over 100,000.
Human rights violations – including enforced disappearances – were a root cause of the insurgency; they have fueled the conflict, and they have been attributed to all sides.
In the 1960s and 70s massacres carried out by government forces were well documented, as were abductions of women who were then subjected to systematic sexual abuse. Rebel forces, for their part, have been accused of recruiting child soldiers (though this has been attributed to cultural norms under which boys aged 13 and over are considered to be adults). In addition to his combative rejection of anything approaching political correctness, the beginning of President Duterte’s term has been accompanied by a shocking spike in the number of extrajudicial killings carried out by security forces in response to the President’s shoot-to-kill order related to suspected drug dealers.
The question may be asked: can individuals and parties that have a record of human rights violations forge and maintain agreements that ensure that such violations are not repeated?
In an article published in BusinessWorld, the main Philippines business newspaper, Dr Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza of the Ateneo de Manila University recently pointed out that on a visit to Colombia in 2011, Filipina peace activists learned that “the systematic documentation of conflict-related violence committed against women was integral” to preparing for a long-term peace settlement. Dr Veneracion-Ralonza goes on to argue that transitional justice mechanisms were an innovative element of the peace agreement between the Philippine Government and the MILF, under which a Listening Process strategy “operationalized the ‘victim-centered’ approach where collective stories from 210 conflict-related communities in Mindanao were heard. Around 40 percent of those who participated in the Listening Process were women.” She notes that “during Martial Law, rape, abduction and sexual slavery, enforced disappearance and sexual abuse, and forced marriage to perpetrators and abandonment” were widespread. This places gender-related violence at the very heart of a conflict more often seen in ideological or ethno-nationalist terms.
The willingness of all sides to reach agreement appears to be greater today than it has been for almost half a century. There is a groundswell of popular support for an end to conflict, not least because this is prerequisite for reducing poverty and bringing the southern Philippines up to the developmental level of the rest of the country.
As President Duterte appears ready to take legal short cuts in order to attain popular goals, and as diverse insurgent groups display a willingness to engage in substantive dialogue, the question is whether civil society in the Philippines can bring these flawed elements together in a way that sustains a successful peace process.