For its 2021 annual lecture, The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts put a spotlight on a 2014 Philippine peace deal. The deal may not have gotten the headlines of accords in Colombia or Northern Ireland, but the conflict and its resolution offer unparalleled lessons about what successful negotiations look like and how conflicts are fought with words – not just weapons.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the first female chief negotiator to sign a final peace accord with a rebel group, took a global audience behind the scenes during April 20’s livestreamed fourth-annual Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Lecture as she described the Mindanao Peace Talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Talks with the Liberation Front, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, led to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, ending decades of conflict that left thousands dead and establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the Southern Philippines. In addition to her role as chief government negotiator, Coronel-Ferrer, now a professor at the University of the Philippines, supervised the first two years of implementing the accord.

Although the Philippine conflict and its resolution are less high-profile than others examined in Pearson annual lectures, including Colombia, Northern Ireland, and the Israeli/Palestinian question, the topic allowed students and attendees to reflect more generally on how legacies of colonialism and domestic politics intersect in different contexts and to learn more about a country that is not as regularly in the headlines.

The three previous Pearson annual lectures, and how they described the difficulties of those negotiations “really resonate with our experience,” Coronel-Ferrer said. 

“But I thought I would take a different approach,” she said, opting to focus her address on “bringing to light the significance of discourses, what they mean to a conflict, and how they are certainly part of the problem, but also part of the solution.”

“Conflicts are fought with arms, but they’re also fought with words,” she said. “And these words, these symbols, are used to represent the conflicting ideas. These all make up the discourse.”

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Former Senior Mediation Adviser at the UN and Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines

In the nearly hour-long address and follow-up discussion, Coronel-Ferrer sketched the landscape that led to the conflict, going back to Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines, which started in the 1500s. She described the appropriation of the word “Moro,” which Spaniards used to describe Muslims. She spoke about the swirl of different ethnic groups under the Bangsamoro umbrella and also of the non-Moro indigenous people in the South whose concerns negotiators had to assuage as they crafted the peace deal. And she shared how as a female negotiator, she “suffered a lot of sexism, people saying that I am a woman, I am a weak negotiator, and I can't be trusted.” 

Coronel-Ferrer’s main emphasis, however, was on the crucial role that words and symbols play when two sides are at the negotiating table, and on how past grievances and “the history of hurt” need to be acknowledged.

Peace talks, she said, aim to transform the discourse that creates division and dissension. The goal is to achieve collaborative language that translates, she added, “into acts that are reflective of a new relationship,” with the two sides moving from being enemies to being partners and going from a very exclusive view of reality, to a more inclusive view.

One of those sides, she said, is the state whose discourse — rooted in the idea of one nation (meaning people), one flag, and one country (meaning actual territory) — must be transformed to achieve peace. 

“Any inch indicating some kind of giving away of that ‘one nation, one flag, one country’ ideal creates dissension,” she said.

As she worked on the accord, she said she faced pushback about the Bangsamoro name (which means Moro nation) for the region. 

“Who are we to tell them that they cannot choose their own name?” she said. She gave the example of Lady Gaga. “Some don't agree with that name because ‘Gaga’ in Filipino means silly and stupid, and certainly she's not.” But like Lady Gaga, the people who live in Bangsamoro should have the opportunity to have their own identity, with a name of their choice.

There was also pushback about allowing a Bangsamoro flag, anthem, and symbol, even though each provincial government already had them.

How were negotiators able to transform that discourse? “The first sentence in the first document that put together the consensus points sometime in 2012,” she said, “actually was an acknowledgment of that Bangsamoro identity.”

It said: “The parties acknowledge the Bangsamoro identity and the legitimacy of the grievances of the Bangsamoro people.”

“Very simple,” she said, “but it meant a lot to them.”

James A. Robinson

In comments during the event, James Robinson, The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies and institute director of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, said that “one of the things which has been most fascinating for me as an academic who knows the academic literature on how to achieve peace and also on what causes conflict, is the deviation between the reality of these conflicts and the way many social scientists have portrayed them. 

“And one thing which I notice about this discussion is this role of grievances, and how you have to recognize the grievances of others. That's something that's common in all of these cases: Colombia, Northern Ireland. In some sense, it's the failure to recognize grievances in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult to resolve.”

Political negotiations, Coronel-Ferrer said, “are really about deconstructing each other's discourses.”

And each discourse, she added, “has to change by slowly building the kind of trust and confidence in a political process that will eventually end the armed conflict.”