For Chris Rush, of the Swiss-based NGO Geneva Call, nuance is everything when engaging with armed groups. Although the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Maoist-inspired New People's Army (NPA) are both fighting insurrections on the same Philippines island of Mindanao, the choice of terminology is a tender issue when it comes to the use of such phrases as "armed non-state actors (ANSAs)”.
"The Maoists reject the word ‘ANSA’ as they see themselves having attained a situation of dual power and of having established a revolutionary government… while the MILF are more positive about the term, as they feel it provides some sort of political acknowledgement," Rush, the senior programme officer for the Philippines, told IRIN.
The Moro, the island’s indigenous Islamic population, have fought for independence in their Mindanao ancestral homeland for about 40 years in various guises, and are on the cusp of reaching an agreement with the Philippine government for a semi-autonomous state, to be known as Bangsamoro, that could end one of the country’s longest-running conflicts.
Rush has engaged with the MILF and its armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) and other stakeholders for the past six years to provide a mechanism for the MILF-BIAF to support humanitarian laws. Armed groups are automatically excluded from signing international treaties prescribing humanitarian norms.
There is a genuine affability between Rush and the MILF when they meet at Camp Darapanan near Cotabato on Mindanao, where the archipelago’s largest armed group has about 12,000 combatants in more than 20 heavily guarded command bases. Talks with MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and other officials range beyond the armed group's commitment not to use anti-personnel mines to issues touching the prospective peace agreement.
Geneva Call's engagements with armed groups have strategic, long-term objectives relating to policy and practice, rather than focusing on more immediate problems like securing access to assist vulnerable populations, as is the case with many humanitarian actors. Rush said the importance of dealing with the same personalities consistently "cannot be overstated... but saying that there is only one right way to approach an armed group I would avoid, as it depends on what you are seeking to achieve."
A document by Geneva Call to provide a format for armed groups to subscribe to humanitarian norms was first devised for anti-personnel mine usage. The MILF signed the Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action in 2000, during an upsurge in the conflict.
Much of the nationalist struggle took place in the Bangsamoro homeland. Because landmines harm indiscriminately and remain lethal after peace agreements are signed, the MILF-BIAF favoured a ban on anti-personnel mines, but prior to the Deed of Commitment there were no available mechanisms to formalise it, Rush said.
In many respects the Deed mirrors the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT), a state protocol ending the use of anti-personnel mines and requiring the destruction of weapons stockpiles, which entered into force in 1999. The Philippine government was among the MBT's first signatories.
A progress report on a 2012 Framework Peace Agreement between the MILF and the government, and its stance against the use of anti-personnel mines, was presented at two recent BIAF rallies. Rush was a guest speaker and drove home the point that "[anti-personnel] landmines are an issue of conflict, but also of peace".
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), among others, had also approached the MILF about International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and human rights law, and adhering to international humanitarian norms in their conduct of war.
Geneva Call was introduced to the MILF by the Philippines Campaign to Ban Landmines (PCBL), the local branch of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
Geneva Call has developed two more Deeds of Commitment for armed groups - one for the protection of children from armed conflict, another covering the respect and rights of women - and is commencing negotiations for adoption of the latter by the MILF. “We are fighting for the cause of self-determination... you have to conform to international standards," Murad Ebrahim told IRIN.
Jesus Domingo, of the government's foreign affairs department, told IRIN he became involved in the MILF commitment not to use anti-personnel mines through the department’s work in humanitarian affairs and disarmament in 2007. "The process was very much between MI [a shorthand for MILF] and Geneva Call, but we encouraged it and applauded it, as we welcome armed non-state actors embracing IHL and other international norms."
The government assented and then stood back. "We respected their [Geneva Call’s] independence... and for them to be successful they must have the confidence of not only us, but also of MI," Domingo said. The MILF signing the Deed "was a plus”, and “It certainly contributed to the building of confidence… Geneva Call were not directly part of the peace process, but we saw them as part of the overall spectrum."
The proposed peace agreement could allow for an autonomous region in Mindanao with tax-raising powers and a share of the profits from the island's mineral resources, with the government retaining control over defence, foreign affairs and monetary policies. Sharia law may be applied, but only to Muslims in relation to civil cases, while criminal cases will be the domain of existing courts. Once the agreement is confirmed, it would go to the Philippines Congress for approval, followed by a plebiscite in Bangsamoro.
"During the early stages of the struggle we were using anti-personnel mines as a defence for our camps,” Murad Ebrahim noted. “There are those commanders who said we did not need to sign this commitment but, ultimately, if we continued to use landmines, our people suffer."
He said the 2001 Tripoli agreement between the MILF and the government to resume peace talks, which included provisions for the respect of human rights and IHL, and a commitment not to use anti-personnel mines, "gave us the image of having respect for international law".
An analyst who declined to be identified told IRIN the commitment to end the use of anti-personnel mines gave the armed group a "wider level of respect... It brings more good than bad, and more credibility [among the international community] for armed non-state actors."
The MILF was formed in 1977 after Sheikh Salamat Hashim split from the secularist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which had begun its separatist war five years earlier. The Philippines government reached a peace agreement with MNLF in 1996, and in the following year signed an interim peace agreement with the MILF.
The long-running conflict has seen an estimated 150,000 people killed so far, amid a host of proposed and rejected peace agreements. Two million people have been displaced since 2000, of which about 22,000 remain displaced today.
Domingo said, “There were separate tracks [of discussion] with the different Muslim groups [MNLF and MILF] in Mindanao," as well as efforts to resolve conflicts with other armed groups, such as the NPA and "the breakaway communist movements." These discussions covered social, economic and political reforms, consensus-building, separate negotiated settlements with each armed group, reconciliation, reintegration and rehabilitation, and the protection of civilians during conflict.
One government source, who declined to be identified, told IRIN: "There are strong rumours of a breakthrough with the NPA. It may be weariness, or… [a sense of] ‘Hey, let’s not get left behind by history’."
The National Democratic Front of the Philippines, political representatives of the NPA, signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the 1990s. Some observers say they may believe this encompasses the banning of anti-personnel mines and could be why they have not signed a Deed.
A 2008 peace agreement gave the MILF control over more than 700 areas in the south that they considered their ancestral domain, but this was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and hostilities resumed. In the course of the fighting the Philippines government accused the BIAF of using anti-personnel mines and Geneva Call launched a verification mission.
In 2009 Geneva Call concluded that some of the explosive devices used against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were activated by remote control and therefore not prohibited under the Deed's provisions. Others may have been victim-activated - set-off by trip wires or by downward pressure and therefore be in violation of the Deed - but there was not enough evidence to attribute responsibility. "The military would have liked more definitive conclusions," Domingo commented.
Rush noted that "Although perhaps not completely satisfied, the government did accept the findings… [but] the MILF were also a little disappointed that it was not possible to definitively conclude that its forces had no involvement in the incidents, so it was not a zero-sum game."
The verification report showed that disavowing anti-personnel landmine use was just a first step towards the "actualization of obligations", and armed groups sometimes needed assistance to achieve this. "So they [MILF-BIAF] drafted General Order Number 3, and we assisted… [with] advice and through working with them and our local partner, the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, to disseminate the Order to their forces on the ground," Rush said.
Domingo said the Order was seen as "a real earnest effort by MILF to educate its combatants about not using landmines", and added to "the very upbeat" feeling the government has about the Bangsamoro peace process.