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
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,
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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,
“My job is to ensure
that the soldiers understand not only that they should
comply, but that they understand why they should
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
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
to the conflicts.”
head of delegation,
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,
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