The Philippine government has been pursuing Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) observer since since 2003. Such a strategy, pursued so doggedly for ten unsuccessful years, suggests that decision-makers in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila believe that something very important is to be gained for the country by attaining observer member status.
This essay first presents the official rationale for and position of the Government of Philippines regarding its longstanding quest for OIC observer status and then analyzes the domestic considerations and external variables that have had a bearing on its candidacy.
The Quest for OIC Observer Status
The Philippines government views its application for OIC observer membership as a move that defends the interests of the entire country in any future deliberations and final status negotiations conducted under the auspices of OIC concerning the Mindanao conflict. This policy of pursuing membership is justified as a measure that will strengthen and protect the Republic of the Philippines’ claims to exclusive sovereignty over the whole of the southern portion of the archipelago. In more positive terms, it also has the potential to advance understanding and cooperation with other OIC member states that are important for the Philippines’ economy and other national interests, such as ensuring the welfare of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).
The Philippines’ official position is that the country’s application should not be viewed as a threat to the Moro National Liberation Front’s (MNLF), which was granted observer status in 1977 as a non-state actor. Furthermore, the Philippines government believes that once it has acquired permanent observer status at OIC, it will be easier to secure the cooperation of OIC member states regarding the implementation of peace agreements in Mindanao, for securing “peace dividends” such as direct inward foreign investment, job creation for Muslim people, improvements in the quality of education provision and the implementation of a sustainable economic development package for Muslim Mindanao. In addition, the government has hoped that such developments will contribute to securing the welfare and security of millions of OFWs working in OIC member-countries, particularly in the Middle East and North African region.
Motivations for the Philippines’ OIC Membership Bid
First, the current government is determined to pursue peace, security, economic growth and development in the Southern Philippines. The view in Manila is that if the Philippine government is granted OIC observer status, it will be better able to set the agenda rather than remain hostage to the agenda setting of the MNLF at the OIC.
Second, the pursuit of observer status is informed by the foreign policy imperative to protect the welfare and well being of its Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in OIC member states. At least ten million Filipinos work overseas, more than two million of them working in OIC countries. The security and wellbeing of these workers is a paramount concern of Philippine diplomacy in the MENA region. OFWs’ dollar remittances are an indispensable pillar of the national economy. By contrast with many labor-receiving countries in America and Europe, which recruit highly skilled Filipino workers, OIC labor-receiving countries recruit Filipino workers from much wider range of backgrounds, including large numbers of unskilled workers. A persistent problem is that many of these countries do not have well developed labor protection laws. Some OIC states have even enacted laws hostile to foreign workers (i.e., Riyadh’s “Saudization” policy). OIC observer membership could assist Philippines in lobbying on behalf of OFWs’ rights and welfare.
Third, the pursuit of observer status is connected to the government’s efforts of promoting trade and investment with OIC member states. Bilateral trade and investment between the Philippines and individual OIC member countries remains at a very low level. The Philippines has consistently run a trade deficit because it is heavily dependent on imported crude oil, mainly from OIC countries. The Philippines exports a limited range of relatively low value products to these countries in return. OIC observer membership might give the Philippines further leverage and opportunity to persuade other OIC member states to invest directly in the Philippines economy, particularly in the war-affected, Muslim-dominated areas in Mindanao.
Fourth, observer status is viewed as a vehicle for representing Muslim minorities in Mindanao whose views and priorities are otherwise not taken accounted for in the OIC. Although the OIC has recognized the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as the official representative of the Bangsamoro people, the leaders of other Muslim ethno-linguistic groups have stated that they do not share the same sentiments as the MNLF leadership. The creation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) exemplifies this. Neither the MNLF nor the MILF represent all of the various Muslim communities in the southern Philippines. The Philippine government can fairly claim that it is the legitimate representative of other Muslim minorities in Mindanao.
Fifth, the quest for observer status also reflects the Philippines government’s determination to tackle terrorism in Mindanao by collaborating with OIC members. Addressing the issue of terrorism in Mindanao requires the Philippines to collaborate not only with Western allies such as the United States, but more importantly with neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and OIC members in general. Terrorism and the use of violence to meet political ends have been denounced by both the Philippine government and OIC as crimes against humanity. The OIC can play a vital role in partnering with the Philippines to address some of the root causes of extremism.
The policy of pursuing observer status in the OIC by the Philippine government is also informed by several external variables.
First, the trust accorded by many members of the OIC to the Philippine Government as a reliable and serious partner. In its 36th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) of OIC in Damascus Syria, Foreign Minister Nur Hassan Wirajuda of the Republic of Indonesia proposed that the Republic of the Philippines be granted observer status in OIC citing Philippines “cooperation” with the OIC which resulted to the signing of the 1996 peace pact with the MNLF. The Indonesian proposal was supported by Malaysia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates in their plenary statements. Other OIC member states such as Syria (the host and chairman of the 36th CFM), Saudi Arabia; Pakistan; Morocco; Libya; Bahrain; Kuwait; Jordan; Oman; Iraq; Turkey; Uganda; Bangladesh; and Brunei Darussalam also expressed support for this proposal.
Second, other non-Muslim countries with Muslim minority populations have been accorded observer status by the OIC. Observer status may be accorded to non-Muslim States with a significant Muslim population but not a Muslim majority; or to Muslim organizations or communities, Islamic institutions, or international organizations. Since the Philippines is a non-Muslim state, yet has a significant Muslim minority, it qualifies as a candidate for observer status. Here it should be noted that the OIC granted permanent observer status to Great Britain in 2011 while countries that have pending applications include Brazil, Belarus, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Serbia, and Nepal.
Third, the OIC has promised admission to the Philippines once the Framework Peace Agreement is properly implemented. Although OIC member states have not yet come up with a definitive roadmap for Philippines accession to the organization, the Philippine government believes the prospects that the country’s application will be considered favorably in the near future are improving. For example, Philippines negotiator to the OIC, DFA Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, observes, “With the framework [peace] agreement signed, we have a better chance.”
Grounds for Deferment of Rejection
A decisive decision on the Philippines government application has been deferred every year since 2003 by the OIC. Unlike Russia and Great Britain — two non-Muslim states with significant local and expatriate Muslim populations — the Philippine application is complicated by a number of factors that fall within and beyond the realm of the OIC member states’ capabilities to resolve.
The first factor is the lack of consensus among major member states of the OIC on whether to accept the Philippines government’s application. The absence of consensus among the member states on the fate of the Philippine permanent observer member application clearly indicates the lack of a common appreciation among these countries of the way the Philippine government has handled the implementation of various peace agreements in the Southern Philippines. Whereas Indonesia, a neighbor and traditional ally of the Philippines, has strongly endorsed the Philippines’ application, Turkey has led the group of countries opposed to the application. At the Baku, Azerbaijan meeting, the Philippines, together with other applicants (Congo and South Africa) were invited to attend. However, no less a figure than the Secretary General of the OIC himself opposed the approval of the application until after the Philippines has “delivered the peace agreement;”
Second, OIC member states have yet to come up with criteria and procedures for admitting new observer members. In the past, applications were approved or rejected without considering any standardized criteria. The OIC charter, however, is very clear about the criteria for full membership. An applicant state must “have Islam as the predominant religion, and Muslims must constitute the majority of the population.” Under the new rules, “only sovereign states can be granted observer status.” However, it is obvious that another set of criteria should be applied to the different category of observer state applications. Up to now, “observer seats have been granted by consensus [on an ad hoc basis] to the non-Islamic-majority states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Central African Republic, Thailand and Russia.” It is not clear whether the criteria considered by the OIC for whether to accept these non-Muslim majority observer countries was the same as will be applied to future applicants. Given the OIC’s extensive engagement with the Philippines over a prolonged period, it seems that another individualized set of criteria will have to be adopted and approved by OIC consensus before the country will be admitted.
In the OIC’s 36th Conference of Foreign Ministers (CFM), the following recommendations were made known to all members and applicants: 1) The OIC General Secretariat has to come up with a proposal on the criteria for granting observer status to states in accordance with the OIC charter; and, 2) the proposal shall be submitted to an preparatory Expert Group Meeting before the 37th Session of the CFM, which shall consider these proposals, adopting them by consensus;
The third reason no progress has been made on the Philippines application is that a state applying for observer status should have no dispute with an OIC member state. The OIC Charter’s Article 3(e) of the Conditions for Accessions to Observer Status at OIC states that, “[a] state applying for observer status shall not be in conflict with any of the OIC member states.” One example where this condition has prevented a state’s accession is the case of the Indian application for observer status, which was vetoed by Pakistan. As discussed further below, the Moro National Liberation Front, while it is only an “observer organization,” is opposed to the Philippines’ application and has successfully lobbied for it to be vetoed in the past.
The MNLF’s opposition leads us to consider variables outside the control of the OIC. First, both the MNLF AND MILF are on record as strongly opposing the application of the Philippines government for the OIC observer status. The OIC’s recognition of the MNLF as the sole legitimate international representative of Filipino Muslims, and its denial of the Philippine Government’s application could fall under this consideration.
Does the OIC consider concurrent MNLF and Philippines government observer memberships to be mutually exclusive? This is not certain, as 57 foreign ministers of the OIC at the 2012 Djibouti conference welcomed the “framework agreement” between the Philippine government and the MILF as a “step towards [meeting] the legitimate demands of the Bangsamoro people;” they also “reiterated their call on the Government of the Republic of the Philippines to fully implement the 1976 Tripoli Agreement (TA) and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) which the GRP and MNLF signed.”
In contrast, MILF opposition is centered on the premise that there are still problems between the government and the country’s Moro Muslim minority, which, it argues, disqualifies the Philippines from membership until such time as these issues are resolved. In a letter sent by MNLF Secretary General for Foreign Relations Alhag Abdulbaki Aboubakr to the OIC Secretary General Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, the MNLF cited 14 reasons why it is opposed to the application, including that the Philippine government is “committing acts of violating human rights of Muslim citizens,” and, “the territories of the Bangsamoro people have shrunk tremendously” due to government-sponsored migration of Filipinos from northern part of the country. Furthermore, the letter contends that, “The (proposed) entry of RP as observer in the OIC will degrade the honor and dignity of the Bangsamoro Muslims in the arena of the Islamic Ummah and will deliver a death blow to their struggle for freedom and self-determination.”
A second factor is the conflict of interests and leadership among the Muslims in the Southern Philippines concerning who represents the general interests of the Muslim population, given that recently the MILF has pressed for permanent OIC observer status on par with that accorded to the MNLF. The OIC argues that to maximize the chances that peace and development in Muslim Mindanao are sustainable and become institutionalized, it is crucial that the MNLF and MILF share the same stance as to how the peace process is conducted and implemented. Current trends, however, suggest that the two major groups are moving in different directions, with both claiming to be the sole authentic voice of the Bangsamoro people of Mindanao. The divergence of ideas on how to bring peace, and the conflicting interests of MILF and the MNLF has not only divided opinion amongst the Muslims of Mindanao, but has also made implementing the peace process in those areas quite complex. The MILF move to apply for its own observer status at the OIC has created confusion and uncertainty within that organization about which group most authentically represents the interests of the Bangsamoro people as a whole. The MNLF leadership continues to represent Bangsamoro interests in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, although as events have evolved since 1977, this role has become more of a “legacy of the past.” Moreover, the submission of the MILF’s “legitimate” application to observer membership in this international body also raises the question of whether the MNLF can really continue to be considered the preeminent international representative of the Bangsamoro people. This internal fractiousness illustrates not only the disunity of the Muslim communities in the southern Philippines, but also the damage they themselves are doing to their common interests in international bodies such as the OIC. This competition threatens the very idea of Muslim unity and solidarity that the OIC is trying to advance. The OIC may therefore seek to reconcile these two groups, before it is willing to consider approving either the Philippines Government’s or the MILF’s application.
The Government of the Philippines has thus far failed to convince not only the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but also some members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) of its good intentions. The OIC has “deferred” the Philippines’ application since 2003, until agreed criteria for admission are approved by consensus. Furthermore, it can be argued that the opposition of other OIC member states is derived from a fact that there have been no “significant improvements in the lives of Muslims” in Mindanao, as stipulated by the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Peace Agreement with the MNLF. The OIC would like to see the full implementation of the aforementioned agreements, which it has facilitated or mediated, before it will fully accept the Philippines application. In the longer term, it would probably welcome a situation in which the Philippines Government is truly accepted as the legitimate representative of Muslim Filipinos, and not as their enemy.
The latest signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) means not only new hope for peace for the people of Mindanao and an opportunity for all Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao to take part in its implementation, but also for the Philippine government to build trust and burnish its credibility among member states of the OIC. It also reaffirms to the international community that President Benigno Aquino’s administration is committed to finding a lasting solution to the problems in Muslim Mindanao. Although the MNLF leadership is still distrustful of the latest agreement and will continue to campaign against the Philippine government in the OIC for as long as it enjoys the status of sole official representative of the Muslims of Mindanao, it will not be able to further diminish the credibility of the Philippine government in its efforts to press for the acceptance of its application. Alongside MNLF opposition, the variable that has the potential to delay admission is the current Sulu Sultanate-Sabah crisis. It is possible Malaysia may use it as a reason to further delay approval, but even this will not close off hope for future Philippines’ OIC observer membership.
 Pia Lee-Brago and Edith Regalado, “Gov't Execs to Face Nur at OIC Meet,” The Philippine Star (October 23, 2012), http://ph.news.yahoo.com/govt-execs-face-nur-oic-meet-173430804.html.
 “Syria Backs RP Bid for OIC Observer Status,” Philippine Daily Inquirer (May 6, 2009), http://globalnation.inquirer.net/news/breakingnews/view/20090506-203390/Syria-backs-RP-bid-for-OIC-observer-status.
 Joseph Holandes Ubalde and Al Jacinto, “RP’s OIC Observer Status Hinges on Peace in Mindanao,” GMANews.TV (May 29, 2009), http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/163421/pinoyabroad/rp-s-oic-observer-status-hinges-on-peace-in-mindanao.
 See Ummah Middle East: Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), http://en.reingex.com/Organization-Islamic-Conference.asp; European Institute for Research, http://www.medea.be/en/countries/islamic-world-general/oic-organization-of-the-islamic-conference/.
 Countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Central African Republic (CAR), Northern Cyprus, Thailand, Russia, and recently Great Britain have been accorded observer status. International organizations such as the League of Arab States, the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of African Unity, and the Economic Cooperation Organization, have also been granted observer status.
 “Organisation of the Islamic Conference Admits UK as Observing Member,” Islam Today (June 17, 17, 2011), http://en.islamtoday.net/artshow-235-4102.htm. See also “Organisation of the Islamic Conference welcomes new UK special envoy appointment,” Gulf News (June 17, 2011) and “UK - MFA - Foreign Secretary meets with the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference," ISRIA (June 15, 2011).
 Raymond Chickrie, “Brazil Seeks Observer Status in OIC,” Caribbean Muslim (June 14, 2011), http://www.caribbeanmuslims.com/blogs/147/Brazil-seeks-Observer-status-in-OIC.html.
 Pia Lee-Brago and Edith Regalado, “Gov’t Execs to Face Nur at OIC Meet,” Philippine Star, (October 23, 2012), http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2012/10/23/859777/gov%E2%80%99t-execs-face-nur-oic-meet.
 “Syria Backs RP bid for OIC Observer Status (for technical and procedural reasons),” Philippine Daily Inquirer (May 6, 2009), http://globalnation.inquirer.net/news/breakingnews/view/20090506-203390/Syria-backs-RP-bid-for-OIC-observer-status.
 “Gambia Backs Philippines’ Bid for Observer Status in OIC,” (June 24-25, 2005), http://www.statehouse.gm/asia-visit-phlpines-june20-24.htm.
 “PH Ready to Attend OIC Council Meeting Next Month - DFA,” ABS/CBN News (October 25, 2012), http://220.127.116.11/nation/10/25/12/ph-ready-attend-oic-council-meeting-next-month-dfa.
 Jerome Aning, “Odds of RP Getting OIC Observer Seat Better,” Philippine Daily Inquirer (March 12, 2009), http://globalnation.inquirer.net/news/news/view/20090312-193806/Odds-of-RP-getting-OIC-observer-seat-better.
 Pia Lee-Brago, “Indonesia Supports Observer Status for RP in Organization of Islamic Conference,” (May 27, 2009), http://www.philstar.com/headlines/471366/indonesia-supports-observer-status-rp-organization-islamic-conference.
 Hamid Ansari, “The OIC and India: Signals of a Re-think,” Observer Research Foundation, (February 2, 2006), http://www.observerindia.com/cms/sites/orfonline/modules/analysis/AnalysisDetail.html?cmaid=2480&mmacmaid=731.
 Francis T. Wakefield, “Implement Past Peace Deals, OIC Urges PH,” Manila Bulletin (November 12, 20012), http://ph.news.yahoo.com/implement-past-peace-deals-oic-urges-ph-120212975.html.
 “Philippines Denies Observer Status in OIC,” The Bansamoro Blog (June 8, 2009), http://bangsamoro.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/philippines-denied-observer-status-in-oic/.