Publication date: 
Oct 2012

Philippines breaks out of the conflict trap

Eliz Balderas, Generation Peace Youth Network

Settlement of long-lasting armed conflicts is all too rare. The quick succession of peace agreements on South Sudan and Aceh in 2005 and Nepal in 2006 may have suggested otherwise, but closer to the norm is the apparent absence of positive developments in places like Kashmir, Cyprus, Israel–Palestine, Western Sahara, Kurdistan, Caucasus, Uganda, Somalia, or the Congo, to name a few.  These conflicts rumble on, and to the outside world largely remain forgotten.

That is, until something happens like this week: the welcome confirmation of a peace agreement in Mindanao. 

Four decades after violent conflict erupted and following 15 years of hard negotiations, the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have reached a Framework Agreement that puts an end to one of the most protracted armed conflicts in the world. The Mindanao peace agreement is a sign of hope, for the Philippines and beyond. It indicates that peaceful solutions to armed conflict are possible, no matter how entrenched and apparently intractable the problems.
Those committed to peace are constantly searching for new ways to address old, long-standing wars. In the case of Mindanao, the key to success is a combination of humble perseverance and creativity by a wide range of actors, including civil society, political and religious leaders, the international community and, of course, the actors to the conflict themselves. 

Perseverance and innovation

This is a process that has time and again reinvented itself when stumbling blocks have been encountered, such as the all-out wars declared in 2000 and 2003, and the political and humanitarian crisis in 2008.
 
Civil society organisations have been essential to keep the process alive. They’ve mobilised for peace in a range of ways: inter-religious dialogue; ceasefire monitoring by people living in the conflict-affected communities; cross-sector consultations to develop peace agendas, and humanitarian assistance.
 
The negotiating panels themselves have also innovated along the way, for example when agreeing on a Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) run by the MILF to provide early ‘peace dividends’ for the conflict-affected communities; or the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI), which trains new generations of leaders and specialists to improve governance capacities for the agreement implementation phase.
 
Meanwhile the repeated ceasefire violations and confidence crises led the panels to develop an increasingly sophisticated peace-support architecture with two core pillars – hybrid facilitation support and monitoring bodies.
The International Contact Group is the first ever hybrid facilitation support body, bringing states (Japan, United Kingdom, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) as well as international non-governmental organisations (including Conciliation Resources) together. 
The International Monitoring Team is a hybrid monitoring body that links the efforts of internationals and locals, civilian and military, states and non-governmental organisations. It is a joint effort by Malaysia, Brunei, Norway and the European Union; with a Civilian Protection Component composed of three national and one international NGO.
 
Last but not least, the Philippines is probably the country that is taking women’s participation most seriously anywhere in the world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more committed response to the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325 on the agency of women in peace processes. The Philippines’ approach isn’t perfect but women play a leading role at all levels: in politics, in the negotiations, in business, in media, in civil society. 

Implementation is as challenging as negotiation

The recent Framework Agreement for Peace indicates the courage and determination of the Government as well as the MILF. With its commitment to accommodate Bangsamoro demands for greater self-rule the Philippines is following a global trend of increased decentralisation in response to the diverse and multiple identities of its people.
 
At the same time, MILF’s pragmatism and negotiation skills challenge unfortunate prejudice that all too often link political Islam to radicalism and violence. 
 
The Framework Agreement is not the final step of the peace process. Signatures are one thing, but what this really signals is a new phase by which Government and MILF now work as partners in the implementation of its provisions. 
 
Agreement implementation is the most fragile step in any peace process. Expectations for rapid change are high while in reality structural reform takes time. The key to a successful implementation will be local ownership and inclusive, cross-sector public participation in the process. Civil society, religious leaders, media, the business and the security sector all have a key role to play in making change for the better happen. 
The international community can maintain a smart and respectful support to the agreement implementation: allow for local ownership and guidance; assess the right balance and timing for political, technical, and financial support; coordinate to avoid doing unintended harm; and keep a long-term perspective in mind. 
This week the MILF and the Government have led the Philippines a step closer to peace. Peacebuilders elsewhere will be taking note of the lessons learned in this process, and drawing strength from fresh evidence that peaceful solutions are possible no matter how protracted the conflict.
 
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Kristian Herbolzheimer is Philippines Programme Director and Emma Leslie is Programme Associate with Conciliation Resources, one of the international non-government organisations in the International Contact Group for the Mindanao peace process.