Marvic Leonen: The negotiator who listens
Marvic Leonen listens.
More than any other quality, it is this ability to listen intently to anyone explaining their convictions to him that helped the government’s chief peace negotiator forge the beginnings of a peace pact with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), according to two of Leonen’s closest friends and colleagues.
One of the more notable things that human rights lawyers Theodore Te and Raffy Aquino said they had observed about their friend’s work in the government peace panel was that Leonen was able to understand fully the military’s viewpoint on the issue.
This was despite the fact that Leonen was a human rights lawyer who almost always finds himself in an “antagonistic” position against the military in many of the cases he handled, Te said.
“Marvic placed full reliance on inputs from the military,” Aquino recalled from the rare occasions when Leonen could get time off from his negotiating job to join them at get-togethers at Chocolate Kiss in the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman.
Listens to military
Aquino said Leonen, a former dean of the UP College of Law, was “very sensitive” to what the military had to say about the peace negotiations.
“He was very appreciative of that and he was able to build on that, and make the entire initiative work. There you will see the balancing and at the same time build the trust of the opposing panel,” he said.
So it was no surprise that Leonen also listened to the MILF, particularly to its chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal. At a recent dinner with Inquirer editors and reporters, Leonen said he worked hard to gain the trust of Iqbal by simply being sincere.
On Monday, Leonen and Iqbal will sign the framework agreement for a final peace accord that the government and the Muslim rebels worked out at a four-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week.
The signing ceremony in Malacañang is being touted as historic as it is seen as the best hope for ending the bloody campaign that the MILF has been waging for four decades for an independent homeland for Muslims in Mindanao.
It is also certainly a shining moment in the long, productive career of Leonen as a lawyer, academic and advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights.
For many years, Leonen has fought for the rights of the country’s minorities, from researching and writing academic papers to haling those who violated the rights of minority people to court.
Steeped in Moro story
Political analyst Dr. Clarita Carlos recalled Leonen saying that the government panel he led would start the “negotiation by respecting the narratives of the Moro.”
As an academic, Leonen is steeped in the story of the Moros, the term by which the politicized Muslims of Mindanao refer to themselves.
Leonen graduated with honors from the UP School of Economics and went on to graduate from the UP College of Law in 1987. He took his master of laws degree at Columbia University in New York City.
The academic advantage
According to Te, an academic is able to think of several possibilities and most likely, this was the advantage that Leonen had at the negotiating table.
“An academic brings another framework … that can also be disregard entrenched notions,” Te said.
Leonen’s being a lawyer engaged in public-interest work added to his credentials as a negotiator, he added.
“He had a different take on the issue. It was all about self-determination and rights, rather than political,” Te said.
Aquino believes that Leonen’s interest in indigenous peoples took root while they were studying law at UP. One of the issues being intensely discussed at the time was the Cordillera people’s opposition to the building of the Chico River hydroelectric dam and tribal leader Macli-ing Dulag who paid for his life with it.
A Marxist flavor
“Many of us, including Marvic, was sensitized to the importance of minorities to the country. In law school, our understanding of the right to self-determination had a pronounced Marxist flavor to it that minorities in a regime of oppression had a right to secede,” Aquino said.
Years later, he would notice that Leonen’s writings already had a “richer nuanced understanding of right to self-determination.”
While other classmates from the UP Law ’87 batch took the direction of “old-school lawyering,” his friend “become a true scholar,” Aquino said.
“He had somehow transcended the limitations of our profession,” he said.
Leonen, who would be turning 50 in December, also made the UP College of Law his second home, becoming its dean in 2007.
Honed in school administration
It was his involvement in the university, not just as a professor, but also as a school official that honed Leonen’s ability to negotiate, said Te, who graduated from the UP College of Law a couple of years after Leonen and Aquino.
Te said he saw how Leonen was able to build consensus and cooperation among people within UP, many of whom were activists who would not enter into a compromise for fear of being accused of selling out.
As College of Law dean, Leonen, who was bent on instilling intellectual discipline among the students, was not always popular. There were protest actions against him and his policies, said Aquino.
At the same time, he had to deal with the sensitivities of his academic colleagues while also acting as counsel for the university.
“You have to deal with people and for you to bring your institution forward in such a milieu as UP where everyone speaks so well. Everyone is combative. You have to have negotiating skills. You have to find them somehow,” Aquino said.
Containing 37 egos
According to Te, Leonen used to be somewhat inflexible, “but I think he slowly changed and was able to adapt.”
When Leonen was younger, Aquino said, he had a temper and could be too focused on his work that “sometimes he loses awareness of the larger situation.”
“But we were young then, perhaps the years have [given] him more wisdom to be flexible,” he said.
One of the most trying times in Leonen’s career was in 2010 when the Supreme Court nearly held in contempt 37 faculty members of the UP College of Law, led by Leonen himself as the dean, for criticizing the high tribunal’s handling of the plagiarism accusation against Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo.
Leonen carried the burden as the group’s leader and he had to do a balancing act between what his faculty wanted to do and the backdoor negotiations being done by eminent lawyers who wanted to help resolve the issue.
“I saw his ability to build a consensus among us. Each one of us had an ego. And containing 37 egos was very difficult. Have one loose cannon there, we’re done,” Te said.
Te said Leonen’s job in that case was “like herding cats.” And he succeeded.
Little did Leonen know that he would be accused of plagiarism himself. A group of lawyers (not from UP) claimed that he had copied from his colleague, Owen Lynch, in an article that was published in the Journal of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines in 2004.
Leonen and Lynch, an American scholar who specialized in Philippine indigenous peoples and indigenous laws, have been longtime collaborators. According to Lynch, they shared the same thoughts and ideas, that no attribution was needed.
Leonen wanted to resign as UP Law dean, even if he believed he was innocent of the allegation. Aquino, who acted as his lawyer in the case, advised him not to.
Still, Leonen handed his resignation to the UP Board of Regents, which did not accept it..
Instead, the Board of Regents told Leonen to finish his deanship’s term and then focus on his work as the chief negotiator of the government peace panel, which at that time had already been offered to him by
“It was probably his being drawn into the peace process that was the reason that the community and the College of Law let go of Marvic. In a sense, they gave up Marvic to a greater cause,” Aquino said.
Next step: SC
For Leonen’s friends, the next step for him should be the Supreme Court. Leonen has accepted an associate justice nomination. The Judicial and Bar Council will be holding deliberations to fill the high court vacancy next month.
According to Leonen, he will go wherever the President would want him to go.
Knowing their friend, Te and Aquino said Leonen would want to serve on the high court. “He has so much to contribute to jurisprudence and the judiciary,” Aquino said.
But knowing Leonen too, Te said he would be caught in a dilemma if the President asked him to stay on as peace negotiator.
“He would be choosing between what he wanted and what his boss would like him to do. I think if P-Noy asked him to stay, he would. That’s the kind of worker he is,” Te said.
Devoted single father
But more than anything, Aquino said he actually admired his friend for being a devoted single father to his young daughter.
“I really admire his parenting skills. He is a responsible dad. Whatever he is doing, he’d drop it if it’s time for him to help his daughter with her school work,” he said.
But he said his friend, who is an eligible bachelor, had a “lousy sense of humor.”
Leonen is too serious and very focused that once when Aquino asked him to critique a photograph he took —they both dabble in photography—Leonen e-mailed him a highly technical, three-pages-long critique.
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