Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has brought Manila one step closer to sustainable peace with the Philippines’ most notorious Muslim rebels
By Sacha Passi
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has devoted much of her career to conflict resolution. As head of the Philippine government’s negotiating panel for peace talks with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) the 54-year-old’s role in securing the agreement of the final annexe in the accord between the two parties edged her closer to this goal. It also raised hope that an end to the decades-long conflict on the southern island of Mindanao is almost complete.
“Professor Coronel-Ferrer has achieved something of a breakthrough. This may have been due to her undoubted understanding of the issues and her capability as a negotiator, or it may have been partly that she was the right person in the right place at the right time,” said Ron May, a Philippines expert at the Australian National University. “Whichever, let us give her credit for what she has achieved.”
Prior to her appointment in 2012, the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), the blueprint for the peace deal, was largely hammered out between MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and Coronel-Ferrer’s predecessor, now Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen.
Taking the helm of the government peace panel at a stage when both sides had to define details of the four annexes of the FAB, the political professor’s patience and knowledge of the Mindanao conflict no doubt served her well in the final leg of formal negotiations.
“Her role in determinedly, skilfully and effectively negotiating the FAB’s four annexes and one addendum that would constitute the more detailed, fleshed-out, main body of the CAB [Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro] was a much harder task than negotiating the FAB because, as they say, the devil is in the details,” said Filipino lawyer Soliman Santos Jr, who practices human rights and international humanitarian law.
The agreement will now have to go through Congress and the possibility of a legal challenge. Under the peace deal, Muslim Mindanao will be given greater autonomy, including more control over the region’s abundant resources that are estimated to be worth more than $300 billion in untapped mining and natural reserves. In return, the rebels have agreed to lay down their weapons.
“As talks have been ongoing for more than a decade, the fact Coronel-Ferrer has been just over a year in the position suggests her role has been positive,” said Dr Jane Hutchison, an expert in the political economy of the Philippines development at Murdoch University. “The test will be in the implementation. Accords have failed in the past, in this area and others.”
Given the long history of the Mindanao situation, there is a possibility of the agreement unravelling, as the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the much-heralded 1996 Peace Agreement did.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway faction of the MILF, has rejected the peace agreement and resumed armed struggle. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) also still needs to be accommodated. Evidently there are several more stages that the peace agreement will have to go through – including the passage of the Bangsamoro basic law and the plebiscite – before the deal can truly be deemed a success.
“The peace process arena has moved from the closed-door peace talks over the negotiating table to the more difficult public arenas of Congress, the Supreme Court, the mass media and public opinion,” said Santos Jr. “Professor Coronel-Ferrer will have to draw more from her storehouse of considerable skills, this time political and public relations skills, while relying on the best legal defence that the Philippine government can muster for the constitutionality debates in Congress and the Supreme Court.”
A final draft of the basic legislation is expected to be finalised and submitted to President Aquino’s office by the end of this month.