Updated 08:51 AM PHT Thu, January 26, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Decades-old issues continue to hound the search for lasting peace as communist rebels refuse to strike a peace deal unless the government addresses their concerns.
Pending the resolution of these issues, the earliest that a final peace agreement can be signed is by 2020-2021, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding leader Jose Maria Sison said in his opening statement as the third round of peace talks kicked off on Wednesday in Rome, Italy.
"Serious obstacles" need to be hurdled to move the talks forward, Fidel Agcaoili, chief negotiator of the National Democratic Front (NDF) agreed. NDF is the political arm of the CPP which represents the rebels in peace negotiations to end the 47-year-old insurgency waged by the New People's Army (NPA).
The stalled release of some 400 political prisoners and detainees top the rebels' concern.
"We clearly state today that the release of the above-mentioned political prisoners should not be seen as a mere confidence-building measure or a gift to the NDFP. It is an obligation of the GRP under CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law),"
"Neither should the political prisoners be treated as trump cards to extract concessions from the NDFP. Such conduct is bound to further erode mutual trust and confidence," Agcaoili added.
The CARHRIHL is a landmark agreement signed by both parties in 1998, which orders the government to review the cases of all political prisoners for their immediate release.
Sison in his opening statement said a stable bilateral ceasefire agreement can be attained only if the government frees "all political prisoners listed by the NDFP who have been unjustly and wrongly imprisoned on trumped up charges of common crimes."
The chairman of the government's peace panel, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello, earlier said the government will free around 400 political prisoners once it signs the bilateral ceasefire agreement with communist rebel leaders. He, however, reiterated the release will have to go through legal process.
But NDF legal consultant Edre Olalia is not buying the government's excuse.
Olalia, in Facebook post on Wednesday, said the government's claim that the delay in the release of political prisoners was due to judicial processes is a "flimsy, worn-out and regurgitated" alibi for its negligence and inefficiency.
He urged the government to expedite the release of political prisoners.
To move negotiations forward, the rebels have asked President Rodrigo Duterte to free all political prisoners and detainees, particularly those they have identified as consultants in the negotiations. The government has so far released 19 of them.
Violations, betrayal of trust
The rebels also raised their concerns over violations of the government's commitment to uphold and respect human rights and international humanitarian law through the CARHRIHL.
These include alleged government inaction in cases of enforced disappearances and murder of NDF members under the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Two leaderships later, justice remains unserved, Agcaoili said.
He added the government also betrayed the rebels' trust when it failed to fulfill its promise of presidential pardon to some NDF members; allowed the surveillance and harassment of recently released NDF consultants; and the continued military operations against rebels' communities despite the indefinite unilateral ceasefire declared by both panels.
The rebels also hit the absence of due process in the country's war on drugs, which has claimed the lives of over 2,000 drug suspects in legitimate police operations.
Sison also mentioned the burial of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the government's failure to compensate victims of human rights violations during martial law.
The government for its part said it is hopeful that all these issues can be addressed at the negotiating table.
"I trust that our discussion in the next five days will be cordial but frank, rigorous but productive-in finding common ground, in matching word with deed, and in having resolve with will," Bello said in his opening statement.
The Norwegian government, which is facilitating peace talks between the government and the rebels, praised both panels for its courage and commitment in engaging in peace talks despite unresolved issues and differences.
"We commend the parties for doing exactly that - working together despite strong disagreements at the time, despite frustration with each other, and despite outside pressure," Norwegian Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process Elisabeth Slattum said.
Peace agreement by 2020
While the government hopes a final peace agreement can be inked by August, Agcaoili said "we must also be realistic and be ready for the possibility that the negotiations may take longer than we hope for."
Sison said socio-economic and political and constitutional reforms should be signed first before striking a peace deal ending all conflict.
"If implemented to the satisfaction of the Filipino people and the NDFP, these agreements shall lay the full basis of the Comprehensive Agreement on the End of Hostilities and Disposition of Forces as early as 2020-21," Sison said.
The third round of peace talks, which both parties have described as "crucial," runs from January 20 to 25 in Rome.
The first two rounds were held in Norway, but both panels requested to change the venue to avoid Norway's freezing temperature.