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Case Digest: The Province of North Cotabato v. the Government of the Republic of the Philippines Peace Panel on Ancestral Domain, G.R. No. 183591, 14 October 2008

The Province of North Cotabato v. the Government of the Republic of the Philippines  Peace Panel on Ancestral Domain, G.R. No.  183591, 14 October 2008

TOPIC: Elements of a State: National Territory


On August 5, 2008, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF, through the Chairpersons of their respective peace negotiating panels, were scheduled to sign a Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The MOA-AD was preceded by a long process of negotiation and the concluding of several prior agreements between the two parties beginning in 1996, when the GRP-MILF peace negotiations began. On July 18, 1997, the GRP and MILF Peace Panels signed the Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities. The following year, they signed the General Framework of Agreement of Intent on August 27, 1998.

The Solicitor General, who represents respondents, summarizes the MOA-AD by stating that the same contained, among others, the commitment of the parties to pursue peace negotiations, protect and respect human rights, negotiate with sincerity in the resolution and pacific settlement of the conflict, and refrain from the use of threat or force to attain undue advantage while the peace negotiations on the substantive agenda are on-going.

On July 23, 2008, the Province of North Cotabato8 and Vice-Governor Emmanuel Piñol filed a petition, docketed as G.R. No. 183591, for Mandamus and Prohibition with Prayer for the Issuance of Writ of Preliminary Injunction and Temporary Restraining Order.9 Invoking the right to information on matters of public concern, petitioners seek to compel respondents to disclose and furnish them the complete and official copies of the MOA-AD including its attachments, and to prohibit the slated signing of the MOA-AD, pending the disclosure of the contents of the MOA-AD and the holding of a public consultation thereon. Supplementarily, petitioners pray that the MOA-AD be declared unconstitutional.


Whether by signing the MOA, the Government of the Republic of the Philippines would be BINDING itself

  1. a) to create and recognize the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) as a separate state, or a juridical, territorial or political subdivision not recognized by law;
  2. b) to revise or amend the Constitution and existing laws to conform to the MOA;
  3. c) to concede to or recognize the claim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for ancestral domain in violation of Republic Act No. 8371 (THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES RIGHTS ACT OF 1997), particularly Section 3(g) & Chapter VII (DELINEATION, RECOGNITION OF ANCESTRAL DOMAINS)[;]


The main body of the MOA-AD is divided into four strands, namely, Concepts and Principles, Territory, Resources, and Governance.


This strand begins with the statement that it is “the birthright of all Moros and all Indigenous peoples of Mindanao to identify themselves and be accepted as ‘Bangsamoros.'” It defines “Bangsamoro people” as the natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and its adjacent islands including Palawan and the Sulu archipelago at the time of conquest or colonizationand their descendants whether mixed or of full blood, including their spouses.30

Thus, the concept of “Bangsamoro,” as defined in this strand of the MOA-AD, includes not only “Moros” as traditionally understood even by Muslims,31 but all indigenous peoples of Mindanao and its adjacent islands. The MOA-AD adds that the freedom of choice of indigenous peoples shall be respected. What this freedom of choice consists in has not been specifically defined.

The MOA-AD proceeds to refer to the “Bangsamoro homeland,” the ownership of which is vested exclusively in the Bangsamoro people by virtue of their prior rights of occupation.32 Both parties to the MOA-AD acknowledge that ancestral domain does not form part of the public domain.33

The Bangsamoro people are acknowledged as having the right to self-governance, which right is said to be rooted on ancestral territoriality exercised originally under the suzerain authority of their sultanates and the Pat a Pangampong ku Ranaw. The sultanates were described as states or “karajaan/kadatuan” resembling a body politic endowed with all the elements of a nation-state in the modern sense.34

The MOA-AD thus grounds the right to self-governance of the Bangsamoro people on the past suzerain authority of the sultanates. As gathered, the territory defined as the Bangsamoro homeland was ruled by several sultanates and, specifically in the case of the Maranao, by the Pat a Pangampong ku Ranaw, a confederation of independent principalities (pangampong) each ruled by datus and sultans, none of whom was supreme over the others.35

The MOA-AD goes on to describe the Bangsamoro people as “the ‘First Nation’ with defined territory and with a system of government having entered into treaties of amity and commerce with foreign nations.”

The term “First Nation” is of Canadian origin referring to the indigenous peoples of that territory, particularly those known as Indians. In Canada, each of these indigenous peoples is equally entitled to be called “First Nation,” hence, all of them are usually described collectively by the plural “First Nations.”36 To that extent, the MOA-AD, by identifying the Bangsamoro people as “the First Nation” – suggesting its exclusive entitlement to that designation – departs from the Canadian usage of the term.

The MOA-AD then mentions for the first time the “Bangsamoro Juridical Entity” (BJE) to which it grants the authority and jurisdiction over the Ancestral Domain and Ancestral Lands of the Bangsamoro.37


The territory of the Bangsamoro homeland is described as the land mass as well as the maritime, terrestrial, fluvial and alluvial domains, including the aerial domain and the atmospheric space above it, embracing the Mindanao-Sulu-Palawan geographic region.38

More specifically, the core of the BJE is defined as the present geographic area of the ARMM – thus constituting the following areas: Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, and Marawi City. Significantly, this core also includes certain municipalities of Lanao del Norte that voted for inclusion in the ARMM in the 2001 plebiscite.39

Outside of this core, the BJE is to cover other provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays, which are grouped into two categories, Category A and Category B. Each of these areas is to be subjected to a plebiscite to be held on different dates, years apart from each other. Thus, Category A areas are to be subjected to a plebiscite not later than twelve (12) months following the signing of the MOA-AD.40 Category B areas, also called “Special Intervention Areas,” on the other hand, are to be subjected to a plebiscite twenty-five (25) years from the signing of a separate agreement – the Comprehensive Compact.41

The Parties to the MOA-AD stipulate that the BJE shall have jurisdiction over all natural resources within its “internal waters,” defined as extending fifteen (15) kilometers from the coastline of the BJE area;42 that the BJE shall also have “territorial waters,” which shall stretch beyond the BJE internal waters up to the baselines of the Republic of the Philippines (RP) south east and south west of mainland Mindanao; and that within these territorial waters, the BJE and the “Central Government” (used interchangeably with RP) shall exercise joint jurisdiction, authority and management over all natural resources.43 Notably, the jurisdiction over the internal waters is not similarly described as “joint.”

The MOA-AD further provides for the sharing of minerals on the territorial waters between the Central Government and the BJE, in favor of the latter, through production sharing and economic cooperation agreement.44 The activities which the Parties are allowed to conduct on the territorial waters are enumerated, among which are the exploration and utilization of natural resources, regulation of shipping and fishing activities, and the enforcement of police and safety measures.45 There is no similar provision on the sharing of minerals and allowed activities with respect to the internal waters of the BJE.


The MOA-AD states that the BJE is free to enter into any economic cooperation and trade relations with foreign countries and shall have the option to establish trade missions in those countries. Such relationships and understandings, however, are not to include aggression against the GRP. The BJE may also enter into environmental cooperation agreements.46

The external defense of the BJE is to remain the duty and obligation of the Central Government. The Central Government is also bound to “take necessary steps to ensure the BJE’s participation in international meetings and events” like those of the ASEAN and the specialized agencies of the UN. The BJE is to be entitled to participate in Philippine official missions and delegations for the negotiation of border agreements or protocols for environmental protection and equitable sharing of incomes and revenues involving the bodies of water adjacent to or between the islands forming part of the ancestral domain.47

With regard to the right of exploring for, producing, and obtaining all potential sources of energy, petroleum, fossil fuel, mineral oil and natural gas, the jurisdiction and control thereon is to be vested in the BJE “as the party having control within its territorial jurisdiction.” This right carries the proviso that, “in times of national emergency, when public interest so requires,” the Central Government may, for a fixed period and under reasonable terms as may be agreed upon by both Parties, assume or direct the operation of such resources.48

The sharing between the Central Government and the BJE of total production pertaining to natural resources is to be 75:25 in favor of the BJE.49

The MOA-AD provides that legitimate grievances of the Bangsamoro people arising from any unjust dispossession of their territorial and proprietary rights, customary land tenures, or their marginalization shall be acknowledged. Whenever restoration is no longer possible, reparation is to be in such form as mutually determined by the Parties.50

The BJE may modify or cancel the forest concessions, timber licenses, contracts or agreements, mining concessions, Mineral Production and Sharing Agreements (MPSA), Industrial Forest Management Agreements (IFMA), and other land tenure instruments granted by the Philippine Government, including those issued by the present ARMM.51


The MOA-AD binds the Parties to invite a multinational third-party to observe and monitor the implementation of the Comprehensive Compact. This compact is to embody the “details for the effective enforcement” and “the mechanisms and modalities for the actual implementation” of the MOA-AD. The MOA-AD explicitly provides that the participation of the third party shall not in any way affect the status of the relationship between the Central Government and the BJE.52

The “associative” relationship
between the Central Government
and the BJE

The MOA-AD describes the relationship of the Central Government and the BJE as “associative,” characterized by shared authority and responsibility. And it states that the structure of governance is to be based on executive, legislative, judicial, and administrative institutions with defined powers and functions in the Comprehensive Compact.

The MOA-AD provides that its provisions requiring “amendments to the existing legal framework” shall take effect upon signing of the Comprehensive Compact and upon effecting the aforesaid amendments, with due regard to the non-derogation of prior agreements and within the stipulated timeframe to be contained in the Comprehensive Compact. As will be discussed later, much of the present controversy hangs on the legality of this provision.

The BJE is granted the power to build, develop and maintain its own institutions inclusive of civil service, electoral, financial and banking, education, legislation, legal, economic, police and internal security force, judicial system and correctional institutions, the details of which shall be discussed in the negotiation of the comprehensive compact.

As stated early on, the MOA-AD was set to be signed on August 5, 2008 by Rodolfo Garcia and Mohagher Iqbal, Chairpersons of the Peace Negotiating Panels of the GRP and the MILF, respectively. Notably, the penultimate paragraph of the MOA-AD identifies the signatories as “the representatives of the Parties,” meaning the GRP and MILF themselves, and not merely of the negotiating panels.53 In addition, the signature page of the MOA-AD states that it is “WITNESSED BY” Datuk Othman Bin Abd Razak, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, “ENDORSED BY” Ambassador Sayed Elmasry, Adviser to Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Secretary General and Special Envoy for Peace Process in Southern Philippines, and SIGNED “IN THE PRESENCE OF” Dr. Albert G. Romulo, Secretary of Foreign Affairs of RP and Dato’ Seri Utama Dr. Rais Bin Yatim, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia, all of whom were scheduled to sign the Agreement last August 5, 2008.

Annexed to the MOA-AD are two documents containing the respective lists cum maps of the provinces, municipalities, and barangays under Categories A and B earlier mentioned in the discussion on the strand on TERRITORY.

The MOA-AD is inconsistent with the Constitution and laws as presently worded.

In general, the objections against the MOA-AD center on the extent of the powers conceded therein to the BJE. Petitioners assert that the powers granted to the BJE exceed those granted to any local government under present laws, and even go beyond those of the present ARMM. Before assessing some of the specific powers that would have been vested in the BJE, however, it would be useful to turn first to a general idea that serves as a unifying link to the different provisions of the MOA-AD, namely, the international law concept of association. Significantly, the MOA-AD explicitly alludes to this concept, indicating that the Parties actually framed its provisions with it in mind.

Association is referred to in paragraph 3 on TERRITORY, paragraph 11 on RESOURCES, and paragraph 4 on GOVERNANCE. It is in the last mentioned provision, however, that the MOA-AD most clearly uses it to describe the envisioned relationship between the BJE and the Central Government.

  1. The relationship between the Central Government and the Bangsamoro juridical entity shall be associative characterized by shared authority and responsibility with a structure of governance based on executive, legislative, judicial and administrative institutions with defined powers and functions in the comprehensive compact. A period of transition shall be established in a comprehensive peace compact specifying the relationship between the Central Government and the BJE. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

The nature of the “associative” relationship may have been intended to be defined more precisely in the still to be forged Comprehensive Compact. Nonetheless, given that there is a concept of “association” in international law, and the MOA-AD – by its inclusion of international law instruments in its TOR- placed itself in an international legal context, that concept of association may be brought to bear in understanding the use of the term “associative” in the MOA-AD.

In international practice, the “associated state” arrangement has usually been used as a transitional device of former colonies on their way to full independence. Examples of states that have passed through the status of associated states as a transitional phase are Antigua, St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. All have since become independent states.153

Back to the MOA-AD, it contains many provisions which are consistent with the international legal concept of association, specifically the following: the BJE’s capacity to enter into economic and trade relations with foreign countries, the commitment of the Central Government to ensure the BJE’s participation in meetings and events in the ASEAN and the specialized UN agencies, and the continuing responsibility of the Central Government over external defense. Moreover, the BJE’s right to participate in Philippine official missions bearing on negotiation of border agreements, environmental protection, and sharing of revenues pertaining to the bodies of water adjacent to or between the islands forming part of the ancestral domain, resembles the right of the governments of FSM and the Marshall Islands to be consulted by the U.S. government on any foreign affairs matter affecting them.

These provisions of the MOA indicate, among other things, that the Parties aimed to vest in the BJE the status of an associated state or, at any rate, a status closely approximating it.


The concept of association is not recognized under the present Constitution


No province, city, or municipality, not even the ARMM, is recognized under our laws as having an “associative” relationship with the national government. Indeed, the concept implies powers that go beyond anything ever granted by the Constitution to any local or regional government. It also implies the recognition of the associated entity as a state. The Constitution, however, does not contemplate any state in this jurisdiction other than the Philippine State, much less does it provide for a transitory status that aims to prepare any part of Philippine territory for independence.

Even the mere concept animating many of the MOA-AD’s provisions, therefore, already requires for its validity the amendment of constitutional provisions, specifically the following provisions of Article X:

SECTION 1. The territorial and political subdivisions of the Republic of the Philippines are the provinces, cities, municipalities, and barangays. There shall be autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras as hereinafter provided.

SECTION 15. There shall be created autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and in the Cordilleras consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities, and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics within the framework of this Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.



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