ROME, Italy—Despite major problems before its convening, the third round of formal peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) opened as scheduled at ten thirty this morning local time (5:30 pm Philippine time).
Both parties expressed optimism that the six-day negotiations would achieve important agreements on socio-economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms and human rights.
But the NDFP raised issues which endanger confidence-building measures that have pushed the peace process forward at an unprecedented pace since June.
“Our panel comes to this third round ever ready to push the negotiations forward and even accelerate the process of forging mutually acceptable comprehensive agreements on the most important topics of Socio-economic Reforms (SER) and Political and Constitutional Reforms (PCR),” NDFP Negotiating Panel chairperson Fidel Agcaoili in his opening statement said.
Agcaoili said the NDFP is mindful of the fact that certain serious obstacles remain to be hurdled if mutual trust and confidence are to be maintained.
The NDFP again raised the issue of the release of all NDFP-listed political prisoners as a matter of obligation on the part of the GRP under the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)
Agcaoili said the NDFP had been repeatedly assured by the GRP but close to 400 political prisoners still remain in jail.
“We clearly state today that the release of the above-mentioned political prisoners should not be seen as a mere confidence-building measure or a gift to the NDFP. It is an obligation of the GRP under CARHRIHL,” Agcaoili said
“Neither should the political prisoners be treated as trump cards to extract concessions from the NDFP. Such conduct is bound to further erode mutual trust and confidence,” he said, referring to GRP President Rodrigo Duterte’s repeated pronouncement he will no longer release political prisoners unless a signed bilateral ceasefire agreement is delivered to him.
(Read: Unilateral ceasefire untenable)
“It is for these reasons that the NDFP panel has requested to place compliance with CARHRIHL and JASIG as the first item on the agenda for this third round,” Agcaoili said.
(Read: CASER to be tackled most)
In his own opening remarks, NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison urged both panels to focus on SER and PCR issues.
“I continue to declare that the two negotiating panels can negotiate in a non-adversarial way and overcome any obstacle by addressing the roots of the armed conflict and seeking to satisfy the demands of the people for basic social, economic and political reforms,” Sison said.
Sison also said that Duterte may have his wish for a bilateral ceasefire agreement if only the GRP would respect its CARHRIHL commitments.
“The concurrent or reciprocal unilateral declarations of ceasefire by the GRP and NDFP can be easily turned into a more stable bilateral ceasefire if the GRP complies with the CARHRIHL by releasing all political prisoners listed by the NDFP who have been unjustly and wrongly imprisoned on trumped-up charges of common crimes,” Sison said.
Batting for bilateral ceasefire
GRP Negotiating Panel chairperson Silvestre Bello III for his part said the third round of talks promises hope in the New Year.
“There are reasons to hope we can hurdle the task we meant to accomplish in these talks. From the pre-meeting of the panels held last night to finalize our discussion agenda today, I see the same commitments of both parties that animated us during the past round of talks to remain strong,” Bello said.
“I trust that our discussions in the next five days will be cordial but frank, rigorous but productive,” he added.
As expected, the GRP chief negotiator mentioned their hope to forge a bilateral ceasefire agreement in the next few days of discussions.
“I am one with President (Rodrigo) Duterte’s optimism that in this round of talks, we are able to finalize and approve the joint ceasefire agreement. Towards these agenda, the GRP Panel has come prepared to exchange and discuss our drafts on said agreements,” Bello said.
In response, NDFP’s Agcaoili said a bilateral agreement remains a possibility but reminded the GRP that talks may still continue even in the absence of a ceasefire agreement.
Breaking tradition, the GRP allowed a fifth speaker in the opening ceremonies when presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza asked GRP foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay to address the attendees in recognition of his contributions in the facilitation of travel documents of participants in the talks.
Yasay said he longed wanted to meet his “idol” Joma Sison and he took the chance after attending an official meeting with his Italian counterpart.
Sison for his part commended Yasay’s decision to resign as Securities and Exchange commissioner to protest corruption during the Joseph Estrada administration and for acting as lawyer for several activists throughout the years. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)