Like most Filipinos, Ateneo Law School (ALS) Dean Sedfrey Candelaria’s knowledge of former student activist turned communist leader Jose Maria (Joma) Sison was only through the books. However, in 1995, Candelaria found the perfect opportunity to meet Sison at a luncheon in Belgium.
“I was with Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ, and we were government consultants in the drafting of the first agreement called the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL). In the luncheon formally hosted by the Belgian government, my seatmate was Joma Sison,” he said. Wanting to start a conversation, Candelaria asked the first thing that came to his mind: Where did you go to school? And Sison answered, “I actually went to Ateneo.” Sison, it turned out, spent 2 years at the Ateneo de Manila High School, from 1952-1954.
Seated close to JOMA was one of the legal consultants of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), Atty. Arnedo Valera, who was Candelaria’s childhood neighbor and classmate at the Ateneo Law School.
“When JOMA and the other members of the peace panel found out, they said to us, kayo na ang mag-usap usap mga Atenista (referring to the peace talks),” Candelaria said. While having that common ground was a boon, drafting a peace settlement with the communist rebels took more than that.
|Ateneo Law School Dean Sedfrey Candelaria (second from left) with Atty. Mari Yuvienco, Prof. Jose Maria Sison, Alan Jasmines, and Atty. Edre Olalia (Photo by Dean Sedfrey Candelaria|
As a young lawyer, Candelaria was in an organization called Structural Alternative Legal Assistance for the Grassroots (SALAG) with Atty. Valera, Atty. Carlos P. Medina, Jr., Atty. Jefferson Plantilla and Atty. Cesar Bigornia. SALAG was a paralegal group striving to strengthen the capacity of grassroots communities.
“We were all from Ateneo and part of our idea was to help reconstruct Philippine society specially after Martial Law, so we went into human rights work,” Candelaria said. By 1990, Candelaria was working as the research director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC), then headed by Atty. Medina, while both were teaching at the ALS. His work at AHRC paved the way for his involvement in the peace negotiations. CARHRIHL, which he helped draw up, was signed in 1998. It was the first substantive agreement between the Philippine government and the NDFP. The agreement called for both parties to abide by international human rights and humanitarian law — protecting civilians in armed conflict and those who could no longer fight.
Candelaria stayed on as a member of the committee, working on other aspects of the process. However, the negotiations suffered a setback under the term of Joseph Estrada. The NDFP, Candelaria recalled, did not appreciate Estrada’s position on the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allowed presence of US military forces in the country. They resumed the negotiations when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001.
“We went back to the table in Oslo, Norway, in 2001. The members of the panel had changed; there were new faces. I continued as a consultant. I came on board as panel member sometime during Arroyo’s second term. I was asked to work on the second agreement- the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms,” he said. The talks, however, reached another impasse when NDF called off the talks due to various issues.
In 2008, Candelaria became involved with the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). “There was more action going on in terms of agreement,” he said. For a year, he served as the government’s chief legal consultant in the peace talks with the MILF.
When Benigno Aquino III became the president, Candelaria was no longer part of the GRP-CNN peace talks.
“From 2011 to early 2016, I was out of the panel. I was already sliding into the ALS deanship,” he said. He may have been outside the talks but Candelaria was still helping on the MILF issue. “They asked me help as a consultant since I knew the process on the Moro side so I helped on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL),” he said.
When Rodrigo Duterte assumed office, Candelaria was invited to be part of the peace negotiations. Sec. Silvestre Bello III and Sec. Jesus Dureza, the current Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, took in people he was familiar with and this included Candelaria. Hoping to break the standoff, the government held exploratory talks with the rebels and the two groups agreed to resume negotiations.
Last August 22-28, 2016, Candelaria was part of the group that flew to Norway to hold talks with the communist group. Despite the previous failed attempts, the meeting struck an optimistic chord with both parties, especially when Duterte not only allowed the release of some detainees but enabled them to take part in the negotiations as consultants. Among those who went to Norway were communist leaders Benito Tiamzon and wife Wilma. It was, as Candelaria declared, “a big breakthrough.”
“They (NDFP) knew that the offer was genuine. I think the other group began to give government the benefit of the doubt and they trusted that this offer of ceasefire was legitimate,” he said. The two parties’ separate declaration of a unilateral ceasefire was a first in the history of the peace talks with the communist group.
Candelaria believes that the negotiations have finally reached a turning point.
“We have reached a tipping point. It’s already a make or break moment — if you don’t do it now, you might lose a genuine opportunity. Both parties are of mutual minds. Now is the opportunity,” he said. The Norway talks ended on a positive note, with both parties committing to accelerate the negotiations.
Candelaria is now tasked to do the third panel agreement on political and constitutional reforms. Under supervision of panel member Atty. Rene Sarmiento, who himself worked early on with Candelaria on CARHRIHL. Strangely enough, the person on the other side of the table is Sison. It is not an easy task, he admitted.
“As a lawyer, we’re supposed to be bound by the Constitution of the Republic but it is difficult when you are talking to a group which operates outside this framework in a revolutionary setting. But my human rights work was really relevant. For me that is the advantage,” he said.
Working in the academe and with seasoned peace advocates also broadened his views on peace processes.
“It is more than just legal work; it is a political process. The agreement is a result of confidence building. It is about mutual trust, confidence, and friendship,” Candelaria said. When he first joined the panel in 1995, he confessed to being an idealist. But throughout the many stages of the peace negotiations, Candelaria has matured. “I began to be more attuned to the technique of peace negotiations. There are dynamics involved. Sometimes, you would not believe why certain personalities are in the process but they play a role. It is important to have that perspective.”
These are exactly the perspectives Candelaria will put into play when the time to hammer out the political and constitutional reform measures with fellow Atenean Joma Sison comes as the peace panels will meet again in Oslo in October.