Convene the NSC, Mr. President

COMMONSENSE By Marichu A. Villanueva

With just six days left before the 60-day effectivity of martial law in Mindanao lapses, it is high time for President Rodrigo Duterte to convene anew the highest consultative body on national security to help him guide the next best course of actions. The Mindanao-wide martial law under Proclamation 216 will end this July 22, or two months after the terrorists Maute group laid siege in Marawi Ciy in Lanao del Sur.

President Duterte signed the martial law proclamation when fighting in Marawi City spiraled out of control following a failed attempt by government troopers to arrest Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Isnilon Hapilon. Last May 22, Hapilon linked up with the group of Maute brothers – who have all sworn allegiance to the Islamic Syria-Iraq States (ISIS) – occupied and flew ISIS flags all over Marawi City. 

Barely a month into office at Malacanang Palace as the newly elected leader of the Filipino nation, President Duterte convened the National Security Council (NSC) on July 27 last year. From the very start of his administration, President Duterte has already shown his willingness to listen and consult with elder statesmen who – by the law creating the NSC, are members of this consultative body. 

Under his new leadership, he was able to bring together in one room the four immediate past presidents of the country to atttend the very first NSC meeting at the Palace. Former presidents Fidel Ramos, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, and Benigno “Noy” Aquino III all came and participated. The former Davao City Mayor presided as the sitting President and chairman of the NSC.

Among other things, the NSC functions to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security. It also serves as the principal arm of the Chief Executive for coordinating these policies among various government departments and agencies in matters involving the national security.

The Council is also composed of about 35 other leader-members from the executive and legislative branches of government, such as Vice President Leni Robredo, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, the majority and minority leaders of both Houses of Congress, chairs of Senate and House committees involved in national security concerns, key Cabinet officials and the respective heads of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

The top agenda of the very first NSC meeting under the Duterte administration was the ruling of The Hague arbitral body. The Permanent Court of Arbitration upheld the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines against China’s overlapping maritime claims over islands, atolls, reefs, shoals and rocks in South China Sea. The ruling was handed down almost three years after P-Noy administration filed the Philippine claims at The Hague in 2013. 

The former presidents stood behind the very first foreign policy decision adopted by the NSC for President Duterte to strengthen ties with China during the maiden meeting of the NSC. As the country’s new Commander-in-chief and chief foreign policy architect, President Duterte implemented the NSC decision.

In fact, Mr. Ramos even accepted the request of President Duterte to act as his special envoy to break the ice, so to speak with China, through the former president’s long-time friendship and close ties with top officials in Beijing. The “charm” campaign of Mr. Ramos worked and the once icy Manila-Beijing relations thawed. Thus, it paved the way for President Duterte to bring back warm ties with our next-door neighbor China.

After that initial meeting, President Duterte convened twice the Executive Committee of the NSC early to follow through other policy directions. The President also chaired that EC-NSC organized by his National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. on Dec. 12, 2016 and on March 13 this year.

Among the agenda of those two meetings included a discussion on the security situation of the country, the ongoing peace talks with the communist groups and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and updates on the administration’s campaign against illegal drugs, among other identified pressing national security challenges.

Unfortunately, only Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Estrada attended the last two NSC Executive Committee meetings. 

There were no official explanations why Mr. Ramos and Mr. Aquino failed to attend.

Whether all four ex-presidents attend or not, it would do well for President Duterte to convene again the NSC in the light of persistent challenges against his martial law proclamation in Mindanao.

Especially so amid latest official statements from the defense and military establishments of possible need to extend the martial law effectivity in Mindanao to complete the clearing operations against the ISIS-influenced Maute and Abu Sayyaf bands of terrorists. President Duterte has repeatedly said he would defer to whatever would be the recommendations of the defense and military establishment. 

While both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved by unanimous votes Proclamation 216 of President Duterte, the opposition ranks questioned its legality and constitutionality before the 15-man Supreme Court (SC). The petitioners elevated also before the High Court the matter of joint sessions of both chambers of Congress before voting for approval or rejection of the President’s martial law declaration.

The High Court, in majority vote decision last month, upheld the legality and constitutionality of Proclamation 216. But losing petitioners sought reconsideration and asked the SC to compel a joint session of Congress to tackle the factual basis of President Duterte’s military rule declaration in Mindanao.

But the House Speaker warned against possible constitutional crisis should the SC be made to issue an imprimatur for co-equal branch of government like Congress to hold joint session. In the same vein, the Senate president clarified joint sessions by Congress are only needed if the martial law proclamation is rejected.

Such joint sessions of the 17th Congress are scheduled on July 24. However, this is to officially usher the second regular sessions of Congress where President Duterte will deliver his second state of the nation address. Between now and SONA day, perhaps Mr.President, it would be timely to convene the NSC.


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