Address on Peace and Human Rights

“We – those affected by the war, whether from or outside of Mindanao – should engage in honest dialogue of who we are, what we should do and how we should achieve peace founded on justice and human rights… “

Warmest greetings of lasting peace!

Today, as we gather to celebrate a week of peace and human rights, political forces are at work again to revise or amend the Constitution for very sinister ends. If reports are correct, there are about one hundred and fifty, and perhaps many of these come from Mindanao, that have signed the resolution that has not yet become public—even to the constituents of the members of the House of Representatives that have signed on to the resolution.

Months ago however, the Supreme Court voted with a slim majority of eight, not to allow the President of the Philippines through a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, to use her influence to start the process of amending the Constitution for purposes of bringing about a more autonomous area within Mindanao. There are many contentions points of course ranging from the extent of the territory of the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity to the power to be given to allocate natural resources and the relationship of that government to the Central government. But these are matters worth our national attention—worthy of national discourse.

Your Constitution contains meta-narratives that do not represent all of our peoples. Even the distinguished delegates that gathered in Malolos in 1898 to promulgate the Malolos Constitution did not really represente all peoples in the Philippines. There were no Manobos nor Yakans that were in that forum. Definitely, Mindanao was again underrepresented. The Organic Act of 1902 which was extended to us by the Americans was an imposition from the United States. Both the 1935 and the 1973 constitutions were insensitive to major aspirations of peoples in Mindanao. The 1987 Constitution has sparse but important language on ancestral domain as well as an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.

This is not to say that anything alien is not good. For instance, the concept of equality enshrined in article III section 1 “…nor shall any person be denied equal protection of the law” is an important rule that should be valued if we are to recognize our humanity. But, a constitution in the context of societies such as those we find in the Philippines should provide more. It should start with a realization that our colonial past has made some of us unequal: politically, economically and culturally. It should also seriously determine what forms of governance can make temporary incumbents in government truly accountable. It is in this sense that this debate between Presidential and Parliamentary is too sterile. Even perhaps, this debate between Federalism and non-federalism is too diversionary. In truth some areas within our country would need more autonomy—other areas need more support from the national government. One form of local government does not fit all of our regions.

If there is anything however that we learn from our past, it is that we need to have some genuine national understanding of what it is that we need to do.

Simply amending the present Constitution now will not bring peace in Mindanao. Neither will amending the Constitution serve as the necessary precondition for catalyzing the process of achieving cultural and religious tolerance, providing opportunities equitably, and ensuring a quality of life that will not only be decent but appropriate for holistic development of individuals, families and communities.

Law reflects reality. It does not substitute for it. Law should enhance informed and participative dialogue among our peoples as well as between our peoples and the temporary incumbents who presently occupy privileged positions in our government.

There are many significant lessons that we should learn from our recent collective experience with the Memorandum of Agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on Ancestral Domain Issues.

First, the full understanding of issues relating to the various conflicts in Mindanao is not the sole preserve of those who claim to be technical experts in peace negotiations.

The government peace panel, especially its principal the President of the Republic of the Philippines, should take the full, just and comprehensive solution to these problems seriously. It should take extra effort to educate the public about the histories of our State and the various peoples that presently belong to it. It should examine very closely how its natural resources and wealth are distributed and find solutions that will truly bring development to those who are not in our metropolitan centers. It should engage all constituents, not only the politicians, in serious conversation to define the problem and provide long lasting solutions.

Second, any long lasting solution to achieve peace will have costs and consequences.

Leadership is about making choices. Laws congeal these choices. Laws reward and punish as much as they allocate resources.

Third, government needs to be transparent about its real agenda.

For so long, the peoples of our country, not only of Mindanao, have been victims to the narrow and parochial scripts of the political elite playing for their own interests at the national level. The only antidote to the narrow points of view of our leaders is true fealty to a policy of full disclosure. Solutions chosen by true leaders will be borne by all of us, not only by them. It is therefore better to err on the side of more information, more discussion rather than more secrecy.

We live in times of crises, economic as well as political. What we need are serious statesmen. We need political leaders who have the ability to listen to the stories of our people not pander to hysteria or stereotypes. We need political leaders who have enough sincerity to provide rigor to their analysis of the problems that beset us. We do not need political leaders whose sole agenda is to stay in power or capture power.

What we say of our national leaders also applies to those who wish to lead the Bangsamoro peoples.

Fourth, all political forces, if they are to be credible representatives of those they claim to represent, must be able to exact enough discipline from their military forces.

If legal instruments provide a minimum standard of discipline, then those who claim military control should be able to conform with all norms provided by international humanitarian law. That field of law has developed so as to include all types of armed conflict even those which are not of an international character. It is even now doctrinal that states and those who wish to claim international personality that the critical norms of civilian protection, limitation on the methods of war, respect for cultural property have become uncontestable norms of international customary law.

International humanitarian law in its present form provide for the absolute minimums to achieve a level of human decency in times of conflict. A force, government or insurgent, that cannot conform to its standards should be bereft of political clout and treated accordingly.

Fifth, in a globalized world, we have no choice except deal with the international audience. But, this should not mean that we become hostage to the agenda of others. Government should listen more to its people rather than the governments of other states.

All of our problems have local manifestations. While we can learn from the experience of others, it is these distinct manifestations that we should pay attention to. The conflict in Mindanao is not the same as the conflict in Sudan, nor of Iraq, nor of Canada. We can certainly learn lessons from the history of others, but we should not be unnecessarily enslaved by the approaches applied in different settings.

To me therefore, war is an act of desperation: but it solves nothing. Political power, both government and insurgent, should come from somewhere else. In the meantime, we—those affected by the war, whether from or outside of Mindanao—should engage in honest dialogue of who we are, what we should do and how we should achieve peace founded on justice and human rights.

Thank you. (Speech of Davao-based human rights lawyer Marvic Leonen read for him by WMSU Law Dean Atty. Eduardo Sanson during the Mindanao Peace Forum held in Ateneo de Zamboanga University, December 1, 2008.)

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