Catholic and Protestant Church leaders in the Philippines called on Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo “to study further how to address the roots of the armed conflict in the country.”
The call came following the vice president’s meeting last week with the country’s military officials and her expression of support for the mandate of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).
Several groups was dismayed at the Robredo’s remarks even as she clarified that she supported NTF-ELCAC’s mandate to combat the country’s insurgency problem, but that “careless” red-tagging has placed the task force in a bad light.
Robredo had previously pressed for the abolition of the task force, which has been accused of being behind widespread human rights violations in the country.
In their statement released on November 30, the Church leaders said the task force was established as “a militarist construct to further embed and capacitate military leadership” and maneuver the civilian government.
“The onslaught of human rights violations like red-tagging, harassment, fabricated charges and arrests, extra-judicial killings, and forced and fake surrenders are a natural outgrowth of placing militarist war-hawks at the helm of governance,” read the statement signed by Catholic and Protestant bishops, priests and nuns.
The group, which calls itself Pilgrims for Peace, said the military’s tentacles in every department of government “have severely restricted democratic space, while inversely encouraging the commission of unbridled violations of human rights with impunity as well as fostering the questionable and unchecked use of funds for supposed intelligence/“peace and development” operations throughout the country.”
The group said the unraveling of the peace process under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte “resulted in more violence on the ground even as the roots of the armed conflict — poverty, landlessness, inaccessibility to services and inequitable distribution of resources — continue to worsen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We appreciate [Vice President Robredo’s] desire to bring relief and development in real and tangible ways, especially in far-flung and under-served communities,” said the Church leaders, but added that “militarizing ‘peace (and development)’ is an out-and-out oxymoron.”
“Whenever those who are exploited, marginalized and under-served are further oppressed through militarization and threats of violations of their democratic and political rights, they may seem to be silenced or assuaged by infusions of funds through the military or local government unit, but historically, the most oppressed are only further compelled to resistance,” read the Church leaders’ statement.
The group urged the vice president, who is running in next year’s presidential elections, “to dialogue with peace advocates, civil libertarians, and victims of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law to understand their objections to the military led or heavily influenced ‘Whole of Nation Approach.’”
The “Whole of Nation Initiative” is a coordinating body that is supposed to address underdevelopment in areas affected by armed conflict. It convenes representatives from line agencies and taps private sector participation toward specific goals.
The Church leaders said Robredo should affirm the importance of resuming the peace negotiations with communist rebels if she is elected the country’s next president.
“This will include pursuing robust reforms and service delivery to address the roots of the armed conflict as well as promoting democracy, human rights, and international humanitarian law,” read the Church leaders’ statement.
“We have faith that [Robredo] will grasp the wisdom of maintaining the Armed Forces of the Philippines to their military function in securing the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory, without allowing them to monopolize and dominate the civilian government,” it added.
They said that Robredo “will need to pivot the government out of its current penchant for strong-armed violence and the impunity that enables it, by rescinding [the law that created the NTF-ELCAC] and repressive laws that give basis to the militarist framework and methods in resolving the armed conflict.”
The Church leaders said Robredo’s run for the presidency “frames her as a capable leader who unites opposition to pervasive authoritarianism, corruption, and a scourge of state violence and violations of democratic and human rights.”
“Her peace platform should prioritize peace talks toward a negotiated political settlement that upholds previously signed agreements between the [Philippine government] and the [National Democratic Front of the Philippines,” added the statement.
Among those who signed the Church leaders’ statement are Catholic Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos, Bishop Rhee Timbang of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Bishop Reuel Marigza, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, Bishop Melzar Labuntog of the Kapatirang Simbahan Para sa Bayan, and Bishop Felixberto Calang of Sowing the Seeds of Peace-Mindanao
Sister Ma. Liza Ruedas of the Daughters of Charity congregation; Father Wilfredo Dulay, Missionary Disciples of Jesus; Sister Mary Aida Casambre, Religious of the Good Shepherd; Frank Hernando, executive secretary, Office of the General Secretary, UCCP; Homar Distajo, executive secretary, Laity and Local Church Development Ministry, UCCP; Rev. Dr. Lizette Tapia, Association of Women in Theology; Rev. Irma Balaba, Promotion of Church People’s Response; Kej Andres, Student Christian Movement; and Rev. Ritchie Masegman, spokesperson of Pilgrims for Peace also signed the statement.