As the first female chief negotiator to sign a peace accord and member of the Standby Team of the Senior Mediation Advisers at the United Nations, Coronel-Ferrer has an impressive experience in the field of negotiation and mediation. In an interview with CARC’s postgraduate student Miriam Mandel on 20 December 2022, Professor Coronel-Ferrer talks about the Bangsamoro negotiations in the Philippines. Further, she elaborates on what makes a good negotiator and the important role women play in peace processes.
Source: Institute of Integrated Transitions
Already in her time as a student, Coronel-Ferrer was involved in civil society and campaigned for human rights and peace, at that time still in an underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship. After the dictatorship was brought down in 1986, in the following years she founded, among other things, the Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines and worked as director of the human rights organisation CARHRIHL on the Philippine National Actions Plan (PNAP). The PNAP is an effort by the Philippines to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR) on the inclusion of women in the field of peace and security. The Bangsamoro peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) took place from 2010 to 2016 and addressed the territorial and political rights of the Muslim minority. In 2012 Coronel-Ferrer became the chief negotiator for the government and signed the Bangsamoro peace agreement with the opposing negotiators in 2014.
Bringing two parties who are in a protracted conflict to the negotiating table is no easy task. Coronel-Ferrer describes that one of the biggest challenges in the Bangsamoro negotiations was to create a trustful and confiding environment. Due to failed peace negotiations before, there was a lot of scepticism and frustration and personal relationships and trust had to be rebuilt: “it was very important for the President to make symbolic acts and positive statements to show his commitment to the process. […] For example, we greeted them on their birthdays and brought them chocolates on Valentine’s Day.” At the negotiating table, different methods were used to make it less formal. In addition to casual conversations during the breaks, important topics “had to be discussed in smaller groups and not in the bigger plenary.” In this way, it was possible to address the core interests of both sides.
Whether in the plenary or smaller group meetings, the negotiators are particularly responsible for the success of negotiations. But what does it mean to be a good negotiator?
Coronel-Ferrer elaborates that a negotiator needs to “have a good understanding of the nature of the problem as well as of the nature of grievances and the right kind of sensitivity to the grievances”. Thus, next to analytical, technical and intellectual skills for instance in law-making, negotiators should possess emotional intelligence. “There is a big need for understanding the problem and to have a lot of sensitivity for where they’re coming from. And where they’re coming from also includes their culture, their religion, not just the ideology, not just the revolutionary history, but also their folk culture […]” To be able to understand the grievances of the opposing negotiating team and find common ground, it is essential to know about the origins and nature of the conflict and the past.
Personal qualities such as empathy, persuasiveness, perseverance, and resilience are also important. Coronel-Ferrer reports that during the negotiations, there was a lot of public pressure, criticism and resistance. Accusations like “Why are you sleeping with the enemy?” and “she’s giving away the country, she is betraying the people” as well as other offending comments and threats accompanied her work through the time of the negotiations. By saying “I suppose men would get something similar like that, but there’s always that kind of a sexist undertone to this kind of feedback”, Coronel-Ferrer emphasises how her gender played a decisive role in the criticism and hatred she received.
However, it is very essential to involve more women in peace processes. “[W]e do need women to be visible in the process so that women’s issues are not taken for granted or simply disregarded “. Especially when talking about gender mainstreaming and issues that directly affect women, only women have the necessary perseverance. In the Bangsamoro peace negotiations, for example, it was possible to convince the MILF to include women in their delegation. Precisely because the government delegation was led by Coronel-Ferrer as a woman, this interest could be convincingly negotiated. Moreover, by including women in the negotiation more female-dominated networks will automatically be connected to the process and the constituency behind grows.
“[T]here are a lot of capable women […] who can lead the process if only they were given the chance. Unfortunately, most of the time the opportunities are given to men because most of the time it’s also men doing the appointing and their own social networks are dominated by men”. In her further argumentation, Coronel-Ferrer refers directly to the field of peace and security: Especially the military, religious institutions, bureaucracy and politics are still dominated by men. She concludes, “[w]e’re still at that stage, where we have to prove that we can”. Of course, “just as it cannot be any woman, it cannot be any man” – having the necessary skills to be a good negotiator does matter.
With her work, Coronel-Ferrer has proven that she personally possesses the necessary skills to work in the field of peace and security. Furthermore, she showed that there are capable women who can lead peace negotiations and mediation. Even though structural changes in terms of women’s participation in peace processes are slow, Coronel-Ferrer encourages further engagement among women: “Many of us come from civil society, we started at the local level, at the university, school, or whatever setting we were in. But we rose through the ranks because of our own work. And I think that those who have achieved that should also push up the women on the ground who are doing all these really wonderful things under very difficult conditions and circumstances”. Coronel-Ferrer is a pioneer and role model for many women. Her experiences and successes show the advantages of inclusive and diverse peace processes and are a motivation for women to further engage in this field.
Professor Coronel-Ferrer negotiated on behalf of the government of the Philippines the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. She is the first female chief negotiator in the world to sign a final peace accord with a rebel group and a graduate herself of the University of Kent.