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PEACETALK: Bangsamoro Justice: The elephant in the room, or what?

Part 1 of a series

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 Nov) – What would you say if I asked you to describe concepts such as “Shariah justice,” “criminal justice,” “social justice,” “indigenous justice,” or any number of ideas of “justice” that circulate within our society? Would it be like the four proverbial blind people describing an elephant when each is touching a different part of the animal – tail, trunk, ear or stomach – and therefore relating a very different idea of the same animal? Or is it more like four blind people touching four different species of judicial creatures and wondering how they survive in the same political environment?

Since the release of the 10 key decision points on principals in April of this year after the 28th round of negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Government of the Philippines (GPH), dramatic new areas of discussion have opened, particularly in the arena of “justice.” Primary among these conversations is the concept of “Sharia law,” which many Filipinos, especially non-Muslim residents of Mindanao, struggle to understand. The Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (FAB) signed October 15 further delineated this with a general recognition of Sharia Courts, Justice Institutions and Indigenous Processes of dispute resolution. However, it is still difficult at this point to know what a Bangsamoro Justice System will look like in practice that includes expanded Sharia courts and other alternative dispute systems. But by listening to each other and learning about these developments, we can enter into a dialogue as stakeholders in the greater process of building peace with justice in our communities. Just as importantly, increasing our understanding of what “Bangsamoro justice” might look like gives us a point of comparison to critically evaluate the current system of justice in the Philippines that is struggling under the weight of case overload, corruption and impunity.

For many non-Muslim Filipinos, there was considerable apprehension upon reading point 8 of the decision points: “The Parties recognize the need to strengthen the Shari’ah courts and to expand their jurisdiction over cases. The new political entity shall also have competence over the Shariah justice system.” This apprehension, if not fear, is to be expected as many non-Muslim people associate Shariah justice with harsh criminal punishments and the enforcement of restrictive social codes. However, in the Framework Agreement, the delineation of 12 Basic Rights in section 6 includes modern human rights protections such as due process; freedoms of religion, speech, privacy and non-discrimination; prohibition of violence against women; and more. Additionally, in point 3 under “Powers,” the MILF explicitly assures the public that the Sharia system will only apply to Muslim residents. Therefore, Filipinos, particularly those who may choose to come under the jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro in a plebiscite, should be reassured as to the protection of their rights and the rights of various groups within the Bangsamoro judicial system.

Thus, in this latest discourse between the MILF movement in Mindanao and the Philippine government, we start to see what the new face of justice will look like in the Bangsamoro. Sections 5 and 6 of the framework agreement provide some additional parameters as to how justice will be engaged in this New Political Entity (NPE):

“5. The Bangsamoro Basic Law shall provide for justice institutions in the Bangsamoro. This includes:
a) The competence over the Shari’ah justice system, as well as the formal institutionalization and operation of its functions, and the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Shari’ah courts;
b) Measures to improve the workings of local civil courts, when necessary; and
c) Alternative dispute resolution systems.
6. The customary rights and traditions of indigenous peoples shall be taken into consideration in the formation of the Bangsamoro’s justice system. This may include the recognition of indigenous processes as alternative modes of dispute resolution.”

In these points, the framework lays out what could potentially compose three or more justice institutions for the Bangsamoro. In fact, I would suggest that the framework agreement actually has the seeds for something even more interesting: the formation of a system of justice systems that would compose the judicial arm (branch of government) of the Bangsamoro New Political Entity. In other words, the creation (via the Bangsamoro Basic Law) of the justice institutions outlined in the Framework Agreement can actually be seen as establishing several justice systems or sub-systems that might somehow operate independently or semi-independently of one another. This brings us back to the original question as to how four different forms of justice – Sharia Justice System, Civil Courts, Alternative Dispute Resolution Systems and Indigenous Processes – would compose such a judicial creature as the Bangsamoro Judicial System. This question will be clarified next in: “Bangsamoro Justice Part 2: What is a System of Justice Systems?”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her thoughts on the peace process. Jeremy Simons has lived in the Philippines for over 15 years and is currently an international peacebuilding volunteer based in Davao City. He can be reached at justpeaceadvocate@gmail.com.)

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