BBL legal, acceptable, says peace council

MANILA: Peace advocates, including a retired Chief Justice, assured the House of Representatives Monday that the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was faithful to the Constitution amid fears that it would create a substate where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would have full control of the bureaucracy, security and revenue.

Former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. assuaged fears of lawmakers in the House ad hoc committee hearing that the draft BBL contained provisions that would violate the Constitution.

Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ, who spoke for peace council member Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, said that it would be “foolish” to drop the proposed BBL now and start all over again.

“The BBL does not guide the interpretation of the Constitution; the Constitution guides the interpretation of the BBL,” said Davide, who nevertheless called the BBL “imperfect.”

The BBL would create a new region for the Bangsamoro in Mindanao as part of the comprehensive peace agreement between the government and MILF.

The Bangsamoro autonomous region can have a bigger territory than the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that it will replace depending on the outcome of a plebiscite.

Tabora said that while the proposed BBL needed “some refinement,” the peace council reckoned it to be “overwhelmingly acceptable and deserves the support of all Filipinos.”

“To set it aside now would be foolhardy. Peacemakers on both sides—the government and the MILF—have spent 17 years to bring us to this juncture. There is enough goodwill on both sides to bring this agreement to its conclusion, one that would provide communities in one of the most deprived regions in the country with a genuine fresh start,” Tabora said.

“It would be foolish for us to end at this time and try to restart again in an indefinite future,” Tabora added.

Auspicious

Davide said: “The negotiations for a Bangsamoro peace agreement have dragged on for 17 years. The result is an autonomous law that broadens the original one and more fully complies with our government’s constitutional promise and duty.

“With the Aquino [administration’s] commitment and the trust that it has generated among the Bangsamoro people, the current context provides an auspicious timing for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. And with the fast approaching elections, and the upcoming transition in government, further delay in the completion of the process could effectively derail the peace agreement.”

Davide spoke for the peace council and apologized for the absence of Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala (abroad for an earlier engagement). Zobel was represented by former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito. Other members of the peace council at the hearing were former Ambassador to the Holy See Howard Dee and Muslim princess Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman.

Late last month, President Aquino announced the formation of the council to work for the passage of the proposed BBL in an effort to save the peace deal left in tatters by the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident, in which 44 police commandos, 17 MILF fighters and three civilians died in an uncoordinated operation against terrorists by the police.

The President said the “citizen leaders known for their wisdom and integrity” would spearhead a national discussion of the BBL to help people understand the proposed BBL.

5 major findings

In his opening statement, Davide cited five major findings of the peace council cluster on questions on the constitutionality of the BBL:

1.) The BBL does not vest statehood on the Bangsamoro government and is consistent with the creation of autonomous regions; the right to self-determination is not equivalent to the right of statehood.

2.) The Bangsamoro government is compliant with the Constitution.

3.) The inter-governmental relation between the State and the Bangsamoro is consistent with the allocation of powers mandated by the Constitution.

4.) The Supreme Court and the constitutional bodies will not be replaced or diminished by the creation of a Bangsamoro human rights, auditing, civil service and electoral offices.

5.) The plebiscite requirement in the BBL is faithful to the constitutional process of creating an autonomous region.

One of the biggest revisions proposed by the peace council was to do away with the opt-in provision that would allow the Bangsamoro territory to expand after its boundaries have been established in a plebiscite.

“As regards the opt-in provisions of contiguous territories, the core Bangsamoro territories should not be allowed to increase indefinitely by the periodic vote of 10 percent of registered voters in the outer territories,” Davide said.

Davide said the peace council recommended the deletion of the opt-in provisions.

With these deletions, Davide said “the definition of the ‘Bangsamoro territory,’ along with ‘Bangsamoro people’ and ‘self-determination’ in the BBL may stand without need of neither amendment nor clarification.”

Davide said autonomy and self-governance were not equivalent to independence or statehood as feared by BBL critics. “It is a statement of national unity achieved not just by acknowledging human diversity, but allowing diversity to thrive,” said Davide.

Block grant like IRA

Davide said the block grant raised by BBL critics was not “akin” to the Priority Development Assistance Fund but to the internal revenue allotment (IRA) given to local government units.

“The block grant for the autonomous region is a faithful adherence to the constitutional mandate that local governments shall have a just share, as determined by law, in the national taxes which shall be automatically released to them,” said Davide.

On the Bangsamoro’s proposed creation of a Sharia court system, Davide said it was within the power of Congress to define and expand the jurisdiction of courts but still under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

To avoid confusion, Davide suggested that Congress clarify the provision, which states that the decisions of the Sharia High Court shall be final and executory by adding the clause “subject to the review powers of the Supreme Court.”

Davide also said that the Constitution permitted a parliamentary form of government in local government units even under a unitary form of government.

Special bodies

On concerns that the Bangsamoro would create its own Human Rights Commission, Auditing Body and Civil Service Office, Davide said that these special bodies would supplement and not supplant their national counterparts as these bodies would have concurrent and not exclusive powers.

Davide suggested that lawmakers insert a clarificatory clause to this provision (such as “without prejudice to the powers of”) to avoid confusion.

The panel also proposed the inclusion of “solidarity” and “devolved powers” in the provisions and using “parliamentary” instead of “ministerial” to ensure consistency and clarity in the BBL.

Poor not represented

During the hearing, former Commission on Elections Chair Christian Monsod said the peace council had “major limitations” in its work as the poor and the farmers were not properly represented in the council.

“The peace council is not a real citizen’s summit as the poorest of the poor have no representation and voice in the council. There are 24 million of them and 9 million of them are food-poor. They should have been heard in the meetings but they were not heard and, consequently, neither in the plenary,” said Monsod.

He said the summit was dominated by businessmen and indigenous people in Mindanao with special concerns.

BBL ad hoc committee chair and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said Congress would have to excise at least eight provisions in the BBL that his members deemed unconstitutional.

“I’m still of the belief that there can be no interference with the [duty of the constitutional] commissions. The constitutional commissions can make their own regional offices, enlarge their operations there and their powers and that’s perfectly within their duty, but Congress cannot determine, expand or create offices and place them under the commissions.

“We still believe the provisions on the [creation of Bangsamoro’s own constitutional] commissions should be removed,” Rodriguez said during a break in the hearing.

He said the creation of the Bangsamoro region’s own constitutional bodies would throw a monkey wrench at the work and mandate of existing commissions.

The peace council will submit the findings of its four clusters to Congress.