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On the Kidnapping of ICRC Personnel in Sulu PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 30 January 2009

[Statement of the Civil Society Initiatives for International Humanitarian Law (CSI-IHL)

The Civil Society Initiatives for International Humanitarian Law (CSI-IHL) joins other concerned quarters in condemning the recent kidnapping of three personnel of the impartial humanitarian body International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by armed elements in Sulu, and in calling for the safe soonest unconditional release of these ICRC persons, including in appealing to the better senses and consciences of their captors.  At the same time, all those concerned about and working for this safe release would do good to take stock of certain legal, factual and practical parameters.    

As has already been pointed out regarding this incident, ICRC personnel are humanitarian relief personnel who must be respected and protected under international humanitarian law (IHL), both under customary rules and under treaty provisions, and both in international and non-international armed conflicts.  Likewise, under these and other norms of international law, the taking of hostages is prohibited, even considered an act of terrorism, and in the case of the taking of ICRC personnel as hostages, a war crime. Aside from being part of IHL and international law, these rules and norms are derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience.  And in the Muslim law on war, the persons of the hostages are inviolable and they must be treated with much consideration.   

At the same time, the kidnapping incident in question cannot be simplified to have been done in the context of an armed conflict between government and dissident armed forces.  It cannot be simplified by automatically blaming the usual suspect, the "Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)."  Our own preliminary inquiries with Sulu sources point to a more mixed group of perpetrators with kinship interconnections in varying ways to the local police, military, politicians, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and ASG. Under the circumstances and based on experience, it is quite possible though that some "turnover" may be made to an established ASG commander in the vicinity in order up the ransom ante.  What we have here appears to be more the phenomenon of kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) in the Zamboanga, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (Zambasulta) area rather than a situation of internal armed conflict, even if contending armed forces are implicated.  

All told, the contextual situation of this incident is closer to banditry or terroristic activities in which case, it is outside the scope of armed conflict and IHL. In which case also, domestic criminal law, as well as international human rights law, are established legal frameworks for dealing with this incident. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro actually has a valid point in reportedly saying, in relation to the sought after cooperation or coordination from the ICRC, that "this is not about neutrality anymore; it's about pursuing criminals." At the same time, the safety and lives of the kidnapped are paramount, even over the obligation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to rescue or recover them, such as through ongoing search or pursuit operations. 

Incidents of this sort in Sulu almost always need the help of local intermediaries or negotiators, usually local leaders or officials.  Unfortunately, some local officials have reportedly expressed hesistance to help out in this way for fear of suffering the fate of Indanan Mayor (and MNLF personality) Alvarez Isnaji. He was charged and jailed for alleged complicity after successfully negotiating the release of kidnapped TV personality Ces Drilon and her party from the ASG last June 2008.  But the reported statement of Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, who now chairs a Task Force ICRC composed of government security agencies to handle this kidnapping incident, "warning the families of the suspected kidnappers to better cooperate with the authorities otherwise, we will treat them like kidnappers," is disturbing.  It indicates that human rights will likely not be respected in the course of pursuing criminals (as is often the case too when pursuing rebels and terrorists).  This will only create more problems for better cooperation, both in the short and long run.

 The offer or effort of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), notwithstanding its limited presence in Sulu, to help track the whereabouts of the captives and recommend the best options to be taken, should be a positive factor for the overall effort.  It shows that the more responsible rebel groups, even while still in the process of unfinished peace negotiations with the government, can cooperate in the interdiction of criminal elements, notably KFR groups, which traverse the rebel areas. A similar arrangement, starting with the current incident, must be forged with the MNLF, with more reason after its having long reached a final political settlement with the government and, more importantly for practical considerations, because of its politico-military infrastructure in Sulu and the implication of at least one MNLF element in leading the kidnapping operation.         

 The United States, now under a new President, has also offered to help Philippine authorities hunt down the kidnappers. The U.S. of course has its high technology of surveillance which can be helpful to some extent but there is still no substitute for good, reliable human intelligence on the ground, especially where a distinction must at all times be made between the kidnappers and the kidnapped in close quarters.  We agree with the view, such as that expressed by the Swiss Ambassador, that "all players have to coordinate closely to achieve positive results," as too many cooks can spoil the broth.

 The spate of kidnappings of humanitarian, development and even peace workers in Zambasulta starting 2008 is a challenge to civil society organizations and NGOs in these fields and areas of work to engage the KFR problem in ways appropriate to their organizational mandates. We note and support the effort of some families and friends of kidnap victims as well as stakeholders in Zambasulta to engage KFR as a national security issue and to develop recommendations both for the immediate and long-term, especially on the preventive end.  A framework of human security (which includes adherence to human rights and IHL) and human development would also be helpful to such efforts.  CSI-IHL, as a still new and small network of IHL NGOs, seeks to do its part to help where it can as regards the current kidnapping of ICRC personnel in Sulu, as well as any future KFR incident where IHL and its fundamental principles are concerned.

22 January 2009, Quezon City, Philippines



Atty. SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR., Coordinator, Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines (PCBL)                       

Prof. RAUL C. PANGALANGAN, Co-Chair, Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court (PCICC) 

Mr. ERNESTO A. ANASARIAS, Executive Director, Balay Rehabilitation Center (BALAY)                 

Mr. MARCO P. PUZON, National Coordinator, Philippine Coalition to Protect Children Involved in Armed Conflict (Protect CIAC)

Prof. MIRIAM CORONEL-FERRER, Lead Convener, Sulong CARHRIHL                    

JESUSA I. REBETE, Steering Committee Member, Philippine Action Network on Small Arms (PhilANSA)

Dr. REY OLIVER S. ALEJANDRINO, President, Philippine Society for International Humanitarian Law (PSIHL)

Last Updated ( Friday, 30 January 2009 )
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