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Putting words into action

 

In the jungles, schools, barracks and legislative halls of the Philippines, Movement and external partners take a comprehensive approach to applying the letter and spirit of international humanitarian law.

IT’S 07:30 IN THE MORNING in Cotabato City, Central Mindanao, the Philippines. A beautiful day, and in a very beautiful part of the world: blue skies, sunshine, coconut palms.

But this is also a troubled part of the world: the Philippines has suffered decades of conflict between government forces and various armed groups. The violence has, over the years, cost an estimated 150,000 lives, and Mindanao has been one of the worst-affected regions.

This morning in Cotabato, men serving in the Philippine Marine Corps are gathering outside their barracks. A makeshift tent has been erected to provide shade over rows of chairs.

When everyone is seated, two ICRC staff (Albert Madrazo and Jeffrey Michael “JM” Sison) begin a presentation on international humanitarian law, or IHL as it’s known for short. It is an energetic, imaginative and engaging run through the rules, which every soldier is supposed to know: the need to protect civilians, the need to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, the treatment of prisoners, etc.

Sessions like these are run by the ICRC in conflict zones all over the world. Rebel forces and regular armies alike are reminded that war has rules and they must be followed.

In the Philippines, it’s gone well beyond simply sessions and reminders. Despite, or even because of, its long internal armed conflicts, this country has been making considerable strides to promote the ideals of IHL and, even though there are still challenges, to ensure that they are not only discussed, but practised.

The Philippines has ratified more IHL-related treaties including the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols, than any other country in South-East Asia, and, in 2009, passed a radical new piece of legislation, known as Republic Act (RA) 9851 (or Philippine Act on Crimes against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity), incorporating many of the obligations of IHL into domestic law.

What’s more, across society, from the judiciary to educational institutions to the armed forces, IHL programmes are being introduced with energetic support from the Philippine Red Cross and the ICRC.

Soldier and guardian

In the capital Manila, Colonel Domingo Tutaan Jr. is a busy man. He is in charge of the international humanitarian law and human rights section of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and, as such, is responsible for ensuring that every soldier knows IHL and applies it in the field.

As a state institution, the armed forces perform duties in conflict and other situations of violence involving both IHL and human-rights issues. Essentially, these are distinct but complementary domains: IHL being applicable during armed conflict; human rights being applicable during both peace and armed conflict.

Colonel Tutaan is enthusiastic, and keen to demonstrate his devotion to his job. His business card, which he hands over with a flourish, contains not just his name and contact details, but the words: “I am a soldier, I am a guardian of human rights.” His office is full of posters, pamphlets and books promoting IHL, many of them produced with technical advice and financial support from the ICRC.

“My job,” he explains, “is to ensure that the soldiers understand not only that they should comply, but that they understand why they should comply.”

Colonel Tutaan freely admits that the armed forces do not have an unblemished record. “Because of the history that we have,” he says, “with a long period of martial law, something was tainted… something was needed to restore relations with the public.”

The colonel clearly sees IHL promotion not just as a moral imperative, but as strategically smart. “We think our work [with IHL] could help bring an end to the conflict,” he claims. “It’s not defeating the enemy, it’s winning the peace.”

Part of the strategy of the armed forces involves appointing an officer in charge of IHL, usually the second in command, in every unit and battalion. Their job is to monitor implementation and compliance, and to report violations. These, in theory, can then be prosecuted under the new RA 9851 law.

So far, however, RA 9851 remains untested, although Colonel Tutaan insists he is “praying for” a viable case to take to court. He has two in mind: one involving alleged violations committed by the military during an interrogation, the other over the death of soldiers, allegedly killed after they had been captured, by an armed group. But so far, he says, witnesses and victims are either not available, or remain reluctant to come forward.

On our own

Nevertheless, RA 9851 remains, on paper at least, a very strong piece of legislation, which, if used, could hold IHL violators to account, and encourage compliance. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross and a former senator in the Philippine Congress, played an instrumental role in getting the law passed.

“We want to show we can implement IHL on our own,” he explains. “The Philippines can punish the violators right here at home, it doesn’t need to take them to the International Criminal Court.”

Meanwhile Jean-Daniel Tauxe, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines, views the law as the “latest success” in the promotion of IHL in the country, but believes more needs to be done to raise awareness. Here again, the ICRC and the Philippine Red Cross are active. IHL training sessions for lawyers, prosecutors and judges are being set up, working together with the national bar association, the Department of Justice, and the official agency that trains the judiciary.

One of the most successful awareness-raising projects is a programme involving young law students around the country. At an annual competition, they argue hypothetical cases involving the application of IHL. Christopher Louis Ocampo and Daniel Siegfried Corpuz, both aged 26 and in their final year of law studies in Manila, are successful participants: they won the competition in 2008.

“We debated all sorts of things,” remembers Ocampo, “such as whether a general can be held liable for war crimes committed under his command. Or what level of destruction of cultural property is excessive.”

“We were really able to hone our skill,” agrees Corpuz.

The moot court competition, which now includes 19 participating universities, has practical applications for those who take part. “Just two years [after the competition], I was talking to security forces in Mindanao about IHL,” says Ocampo, who was working for a government human-rights agency at the time. “At first I got the feeling they thought, ‘This guy is too young, why is he trying to tell me what to do in an armed conflict’, but then they became very receptive.

“I really feel I have been able to influence the conflict situation.”

Nevertheless, both young men believe there is a long way to go before their country can truly say that implementation, let alone compliance, of IHL, is really working.

“Yes they [the military] are very open to talking about IHL,” says Ocampo. “But whether or not they are actually doing it, that’s another story.”

This question is one reason many are watching closely to see how effectively the country’s new IHL law will be implemented. A leading expert on IHL and human rights in the Philippines, Harry Roque says there is “a lot of room for improvement” in this regard.

The Philippines, he says, has been “good in terms of ratifying IHL treaties”. The primary challenge now, with RA 9851 only recently enacted, is that “the existing criminal justice system does not appear to be effective in implementing the duty to investigate, prosecute and punish those who will commit serious violations of IHL”.

As an example, Roque cites the case of a former general accused by human rights groups of having allegedly ordered serious violations of IHL — targeted killings of civilians — and who has not yet been arrested and prosecuted. At the time this magazine went to press, that general was still a fugitive, charged in connection with a case of enforced disappearance.

Likewise, Roque says, members of armed groups have not been prosecuted for alleged violations of IHL that have been reported in the media.

While none have so far been prosecuted under RA 9851, a number of them have been arrested, detained and sentenced under domestic law for acts linked to the armed conflicts.

Fear of violence

Back in Cotabato city, fear of violence remains ever present among local people. Bai Fatima Sinsuat, chairwoman of the Cotabato chapter of the Philippine Red Cross, has lost several members of her family, including her youngest son and her sister, to violence over the years.

Central Mindanao, in particular, is a troubled region with complex situations of violence. Aside from the two internal armed conflicts, frequent disputes between clans, locally called ridos, almost always turn bloody, affecting huge parts of the population. Criminal activities such as abduction and politically motivated killings are a source of further insecurity and lack of development in a region rich with minerals and oil.

Sinsuat, who started with the Red Cross in 1974 as a blood donor and volunteer, says that now, the effects of the conflict are what occupy much of her time.
She claims that the military, who are present in Cotabato in large numbers, have in the past been guilty of abuses, and suggests that some local people “when they see the military here, they don’t trust them”.

Nevertheless she welcomes the efforts to promote IHL being made within the Philippine armed forces. “I think they have changed a little,” she says.
But, she points out, the armed forces are just one side of the story. For IHL to be respected, the armed groups need to comply too.

At various times, in fact, the armed groups involved in the country’s two separate, ongoing internal armed conflicts have both made public and political commitments to their obligations under IHL.

In 1998, the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army signed an agreement to respect IHL and human rights, as well as jointly monitor compliance.

And in 2006, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front issued General Order No. 2, which amended the armed group’s rules of engagement to incorporate key IHL principles.

“All around the world, the ICRC also promotes IHL to armed groups, but in very practical terms, there are obviously more difficulties in accessing them compared to state armed forces,” explains Tauxe. “Their leadership structures are also not as defined as those of the government forces, which means that it is not easy to ensure directives given at the top echelon will trickle down to all the units.”

“In the Philippines, however, we are slowly gaining ground thanks to the work of our teams in the field and the ICRC’s continuing dialogue with all parties to the conflicts,” he says.

Respecting the law

This is an issue which, unsurprisingly, is on the minds of the young marines taking part in the ICRC’s IHL session. Many have lost colleagues in the conflict and many are of the opinion that the armed groups they are fighting show little or no respect for IHL. Some feel their opponents encourage violations as a way to instil fear.

When, at the end of their presentation, Madrazo and Sison ask for questions, the first thing the Marines want to know is whether the ICRC takes its IHL message to the armed groups as well. There is a ripple of reassurance as Madrazo explains that yes, the ICRC has contact with all those participating in the conflict, and that the message about IHL is always exactly the same.

But, after the presentation, some soldiers admit they feel “constrained” by the rules of IHL and some are sceptical about RA 9851, regarding it as a piece of legislation which is only ever likely to be used against them. “It’s only the military that will be punished,” says one. “Not the other side.”

“In combat we do uphold IHL. We do comply,” insists another who feels that the other side may not.

Nevertheless most seem convinced by the argument, made by Colonel Tutaan, that upholding IHL is a good strategy, which will encourage trust in the local population and, in the long run, help facilitate peace.

The battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Dorotheo Jalandoni, echoes Colonel Tutaan when he says that the military has ”matured”.

“Every time we plan any action,” he says, “respect for human rights and the rule of law are there.”

And back in the headquarters in Manila, Colonel Tutaan himself remains buoyant, fuelled by his conviction that implementing and complying with IHL will bring peace closer.

“We are not going to win this war with our rifles,” he says, “but with discipline, courage and humour.”

In the end, the commitment of Colonel Tutaan, or of young law students like Ocompo and Corpuz, together with the awareness-raising work done by the ICRC and the Philippine Red Cross, may combine with two other ever-present factors in the Philippines — weariness and grief — to promote peace.

“We are tired of fighting,” admits one commanding officer in Cotabato. Meanwhile Bai Fatima Sinsuat, now 73 years old, is preparing for another day of Red Cross work, doing a job she would much rather not do, visiting the bereaved family of someone killed in the violence.

“This war has given us so much pain,” she says. “This dirty, ugly war.”

By Imogen Foulkes
Imogen Foulkes is the BBC’s United Nations correspondent based in Geneva, Switzerland.


The ongoing conflict in the Philippines has caused numerous challenges for humanitarian assistance and protection — as well as for compliance with international humanitarian law. Outbreaks of fighting have displaced thousands and made access difficult. Above, an ICRC delegate assists displaced people on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in September 2008, following fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels.
Photo: ©AFP PHOTO/Jes Aznar


 

 


A member of the Philippines’ largest Islamic rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), stands guard during peace talks in Mindanao in 2008. The ICRC maintains contact and discusses IHL with all armed groups and some experts say they’ve seen awareness of IHL grow in recent years. In 2006, for example, MILF amended its rules of engagement to incorporate key IHL principles. Photo: ©Reuters/Romeo Ranocco, courtesy www.alertnet.org

 

 

 

 

“My job is to ensure that the soldiers understand not only that they should comply, but that they understand why they should comply.”
Colonel Domingo Tutaan Jr
., head of the IHL and human rights section of the Armed Forces of the Philippines

 

 

 

 


Colonel Domingo Tutaan Jr., head of the IHL and human rights section of the Philippine armed forces. Photo: ©Allison Lopez/ICRC

 

 

 

 


ICRC delegates Albert Madrazo and Jeffrey Michael Sison bring the message of IHL to members of the Philippine marine corps stationed in Cotobato, Mindanao.
Photo: ©Cynthia Lee/ICRC

 

 

 

 


Bai Fatima Sinsuat, chairwoman of the Cotobato chapter of the Philippine Red Cross.
Photo: ©Imogen Foulkes/IFRC

 

 

 

 

“We want to show we can do this on our own. The Philippines can punish violators right here at home, it doesn’t need to take them to the International
Criminal Court.”

Richard Gordon
, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross

 

 

 

 

 


Members of the 6th Infantry Division of the Marine Corps of the Philippines review materials handed out during an ICRC briefing on IHL.
Photo: ©Didier Revol/ICRC

 

 

 

“We are slowly gaining ground thanks to the work of our teams in the field and the ICRC’s continuing dialogue
with all parties
to the conflicts.”

Jean-Daniel Tauxe
,
head of delegation,
ICRC Philippines

 

 

 

WHEN THE PRESIDENTS OF THE ICRC and IFRC, Jakob Kellenberger and Tadateru Konoé, welcomed the 1,700-plus delegates from around the world to the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2011, they stressed the importance of following through on the promises made at the meeting in Geneva.

“Declarations of intent will never be sufficient to save lives and protect human dignity,” Kellenberger said in his speech. Konoé continued the theme, calling on governments to support National Societies in following through on pledges made and resolutions passed at the gathering.

“No government, no matter how strong, can hope to do everything,” he said. “By strengthening its National Society, more can be achieved, particularly in support of marginalized groups which can be difficult to reach through official means.”

The International Conference concluded with the adoption of resolutions on a wide scope of topics: health care in danger, migration, implementing the memorandum of understanding between the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Magen David Adom in Israel, international disaster law, health-care inequities, the four-year action plan for international humanitarian law (IHL), National Society and volunteering development, and strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflicts.

With those key resolutions passed and 377 pledges made by National Societies on topics ranging from disaster law to road safety and first aid, attention now focuses on how to put these promises into action.

For inspiration, we turn to the Philippines where the National Society and the ICRC are working together to implement IHL in the country’s ongoing internal conflicts. While the Philippine Red Cross and the ICRC are implementing the humanitarian laws already on the books, their collaboration offers lessons on how to work with various sectors over a long period to follow through on challenging humanitarian commitments.

Our coverage continues with the next steps for international disaster response law, the protection of medical workers and patients in conflict, a call from youth at the General Assembly, and other words of inspiration and action from the 2011 Statutory Meetings.

 

 

More about IHL

To read more about the IHL resolution passed at the 31st International Conference, visit:
www.redcross.int
For more about IHL and armed groups, see the forthcoming edition of the International Review of the Red Cross (Vol. 93, No. 882): Understanding armed groups and the applicable law.

Years of conflict at a glance

Internal armed conflicts have persisted in the Philippines for decades, causing cycles of displacement, fear and stunted economic growth.

The Philippines currently hosts two very distinct battlefronts, pitting the national armed forces against secessionism by a Moro group and also a Communist insurgency said to be one of the longest-running in the world.

Last year, peace negotiations restarted on both conflicts, but formal talks between the Philippine government and the New People’s Army (NPA) — the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines — have since halted. Clashes between government troops and NPA members continue in the countryside, claiming lives on both sides and disrupting the lives and livelihoods of civilians, who sometimes get caught in the cross fire.

The government remains positive in its continuing dialogue with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but a peace deal has yet to be seen. In 2008, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in central Mindanao due to renewed fighting sparked by the aborted signing of an agreement that would have created a sub-state for the Bangsamoro people, the native inhabitants of Mindanao. While most of the affected families have returned or settled elsewhere, many have yet to fully recover from the 2008 hostilities.

The ICRC has been in the Philippines for more than 50 years, carrying out a broad range of humanitarian activities to assist and protect those affected by the armed conflict.

The National Association of the Red Cross, which would later become the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), began operating in 1899. Today, the National Society has more than 100 chapters, 30 of which are in the Mindanao region.

Work in conflict zones often puts ICRC staff and PRC volunteers in danger. The most recent reminder of this came in February, when PRC volunteer Benny Balmediano was killed by an explosion after rushing to help victims during an attack in Kidapawan City.

ICRC and PRC representatives deplored the death and called on all parties to protect humanitarian workers. The volunteers son Bryan said: "My father was my idol. His loving memory will always be my inspiration to remain committed to the humanitarian mission of the Red Cross."


Throughout the years of conflict, civilians have suffered enormously. Residents carry their belongings as they flee during one period of intense fighting in 2008. Photo: REUTERS/stringer Philippines, courtesy www.alertnet.org


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