By Rocky Nazareno
The bursts of applause in Saturday’s signing of another milestone agreement between the Philippine Government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) more or less showed the sentiment of both sides regarding the forging of a joint ceasefire agreement in the third round of peace talks in Rome, Italy.
After the supplemental guidelines that fully operationalized the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Law (CARHRIHL) was signed by both parties at the Holiday Inn Rome – Eur Parco de Medici, the lines were clearly drawn when NDF peace panel chairman Fidel Agcaoili was asked by a Filipino journalist during the ensuing press conference if the two parties were already nearing the signing of a bilateral ceasefire agreement.
The right side of the function hall, occupied by the GRP delegation, broke into cheers as Agcaoili was put to task to make a definite statement on the ceasefire, a development that President Rodrigo R. Duterte is awaiting word of back in Manila.
“I’d like to state clearly that the implementation of CARHRIHL requires the release of the 392 political prisoners,” Agcaoili jabbed back that sent the left side of the room, where the NDF delegation sat, clapping in approval.
Agcaoili explained that the 392 prisoners they were asking to be released were “charged with common crimes,” and that “some of them have already been asked to withdraw their appeals.”
“So they should be released immediately,” he maintained.
Even before the Rome talks started, Duterte had made it clear that he would only start ordering the release of political prisoners once he sees a signed document by the GRP and NDP peace panels agreeing to a joint, bilateral ceasefire.
As it is, the two parties have unilateral ceasefires in place ever since the first round of the peace negotiations in Oslo, Norway last August 2016.
And as he had said in the opening of this third round of talks Thursday, Agcaoili also raised the “question of militarization in the countryside.”
“There should be a discontinuation of Oplan Bayanihan, and of Oplan Kapayapaan in which the New People’s Army (NPA) is treated as a peace-inclined armed group,” Agcaoili pointed out.
And while he said that a bilateral ceasefire could be “worked out,” he was nevertheless critical of the Duterte administration when he added that “it requires action, not simply statements, or press releases.”
“Warm bodies of political prisoners outside prison; and the withdrawal of the military so that the people in the countryside won’t be terrorized,” Agcaoili summed up their demands.
But when pressed on by the media if a bilateral ceasefire agreement could no longer be forged before the third round of talks ends on January 25, Agcaoili was quick to retort: “I’m not saying that.”
This had GRP peace panel chairman Silvestre Bello III breaking into a huge smile and gesturing a thumbs-up sign as the government side of the room broke into a hearty applause.
“There are things that can be talked about. But it depends what we are going to talk about and what they can give,” Agcaoili said.
Bello said he was encouraged that Agcaoili, himself, underscored that for a JMC on CARHRIHL to work, there should be a bilateral agreement on a ceasefire that should first be in place.
“There is a need now to come up with a joint, bilateral ceasefire agreement so we would know what these violations are and how these will be treated (by the JMC),” he said.
Under the supplemental guidelines signed Saturday, “complaints for alleged violations of the specific provisions of the CARHRIHL…may either be filed in person, through email, fax, post or courier to the nominated section in the JMC secretariat.”
The complaints could be filed in English, Filipino or any other major language.
The guidelines also said that “a complainant may be a victim of the alleged violation, a relative of the victim, a duly-authorized representative, or any person, organization or entity with direct, substantial or sufficient interest in the subject of the complaint.”
As such, complaints could be filed by “human rights groups, peace advocacy groups, church members, media, or anyone capable of filing the complaint on behalf of the victim or relative of the victim.”
The joint secretariat of the JMC is situated at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cubao, Quezon City.
The supplemental guidelines complement the operational guidelines issued on February 14, 2004 in Oslo, Norway.