Philippines: Moro Islamic Liberation front signs new declaration for rebel group adherence to IHL on landmines

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The Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines (PCBL), affiliate of the 1997 Nobel Peace laureate International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), hereby announces the recent signing by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of a new instrument developed by PCBL entitled "Rebel Group Declaration of Adherence to International Humanitarian Law on Landmines" - bring to four the number of signatory rebel groups in the Philippines, all in this year.

This declaration allows non-state armed groups (NSAGs) to adhere to, become accountable for, and generate assistance for compliance with the key norms, standards and undertakings of existing international humanitarian law (IHL) on landmines, not limited to those of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty totally banning victim-activated anti-personnel mines.

The MILF declaration was signed (not just initialed) by its representatives on 21 October 2008 and was received by PCBL on 10 November 2008. It was signed by two important MILF Central Committee members, namely Atty. Lanang S. Ali, who is Vice-Chairman of the Maglis Al Shoorah (the MILF legislative body), and Sammy Al Mansor, Chief of Staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF, the MILF army).

What is significant about this MILF declaration is its being signed while there are ongoing armed hostilities (since last August) in Central Mindanao between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and at least three base commands of the MILF/BIAF which had reacted violently to the aborted signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF. Since last August, there have been a number of field reports, mainly from the AFP, regarding alleged landmine use by the MILF. But this has yet to be verified by independent, competent and credible entities.

PCBL hopes that the MILF declaration of adherence to IHL on landmines will help spur better respect for IHL as well as human rights not only by the MILF but also by the AFP and other armed forces/groups involved in the current hostilities. Any resolution of these hostilities as well as any resumption of the stalled peace negotiations will have to include measures for the respect of IHL and human rights. Those measures should include a more thorough investigation of the various reported violations, the effective imposition of sanctions against those found to be responsible for atrocities to obviate impunity for these, and the adequate provision of different forms of redress for the victims.

And in the particular case of whatever landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) that may still remain on the ground and pose danger to life and limb even after the cessation of hostilities, these explosive remnants of war (ERW) will have to be cleared. All these measures from incident investigation to landmine/UXO clearance would be presumably easier now to get MILF cooperation for, as a result of its declaration of adherence to IHL on landmines. PCBL will do its part in these measures in cooperation with its partners in Mindanao and internationally.

The three earlier signatory Philippine rebel groups in separate but standard declarations are all communist breakaway factions with armed rural units: the Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa ng Mindanao (RPM-M, Revolutionary Workers Party of Mindanao); the Rebolusyonaryong Partido ng Manggagawa ng Pilipinas (RPM-P, Revolutionary Workers Party of the Philippines); and the Marxista-Leninistang Partido ng Pilipinas (MLPP, Marxist-Leninist Party of the Philippines). The first two groups, the RPM-M and RPM-P, are engaged in a peace process and ceasefire with the Philippine government. They signed their declarations through their respective chairmen Harry Tubongbanwa (RPM-M) on 10 February 2008 and Nilo de la Cruz (RPM-P) on 14 May 2008, both in the presence of PCBL which received them.

The third group, the MLPP, has no peace process and ceasefire but instead ongoing armed hostilities through its Rebolusyonaryong Hukbong Bayan (RHB, Revolutionary People' Army) with Philippine government forces, so this is a real value added to this humanitarian effort. In addition, it had never made a previous commitment to a total ban on anti-personnel mines, unlike the MILF, RPM-P and RPM-M which had previously done so through the groundwork and efforts of PCBL in 2000-03. MLPP spokesperson Leon Guevarra and RHB spokesperson Red Olalia signed the declaration on 29 March 2008 "somewhere in Central Luzon" but, due to technical difficulties, was delivered to PCBL only on 30 July 2008.

The "Rebel Group Declaration" outlines the key applicable norms, standards and undertakings under four sources of IHL relevant to landmines: the 1997 Ottawa Treaty; the 1996 Amended Protocol II on Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW); the 2003 Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) of the CCW; and the customary IHL rules on landmines as set forth in the 2005 customary IHL study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As regards victim-activated anti-personnel mines, the Ottawa Treaty norms on a total ban hold sway under this declaration. As for other landmines which are not banned by IHL as weapons of war - command-detonated anti-personnel mines (like certain Claymore mines) and all types of anti-vehicle mines - it is mainly Amended Protocol II as well as customary IHL which apply. The allowable use of these other landmines are governed by rules aimed mainly at protecting civilians against indiscriminate effects both during and after armed hostilities. While Protocol V on ERW specifically excludes landmines from its scope, still its provisions on ERW clearance are relevant to mine clearance.

In zones of armed conflict, not only landmines but many types of explosive ordnance in warfare and all sorts of unexploded and abandoned ordnance remain after the armed hostilities. The "Rebel Group Declaration" is therefore more reflective of this reality on the ground than most existing declarations. It is hoped that this comprehensive, as opposed to segmented, approach in the case of NSAGs will also encourage a similar approach in the case of states, such as in their domestic implementing legislation (e.g. the bill for a "Philippine Comprehensive Law on Landmines") and in developing possible inter-treaty regime interface mechanisms (e.g between/among the Ottawa Treaty, CCW and the coming Cluster Munitions Convention regimes).

In terms of accountability mechanisms, the "Rebel Group Declaration" points to the role not only of neutral, impartial and competent humanitarian organizations but also of the people in the group's areas of control or operations, which is more compelling when the local, affected population comprises the group's own constituency or mass base. The declaration also welcomes assistance that would help ensure compliance with and implementation of the IHL on landmines. Since the declaration is still new, its accountability and assistance mechanisms are expected to evolve further in the course of practice and with the help of the relevant networks and resources for this purpose. Finally, the declaration clarifies that it does not limit the group's adherence vis-a-vis other norms and standards or the broad framework of IHL and human rights.

The "Rebel Group Declaration" can be a significant contribution and example on the part of adhering NSAGs. Though initially piloted in the Philippines, it can be replicated in appropriate localized versions elsewhere in the world. These will cumulatively encourage reciprocal adherences from states, and result in improvement in the human security situation for the people and communities in conflict-affected areas. These will also help build up the treaty norms to become customary norms of international law binding on all, not only to states-parties to treaties but also to non-party states and even non-state entities. In this way, we can achieve true universalization of the IHL on landmines.

Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines