THE Aquino administration slammed the door Friday on the abrogation of the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States despite calls for its cancellation in the wake of the killing of transgender Jennifer Laude, allegedly at the hands of a US Marine.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said ongoing talks between the Philippines and the United States were intended to come up with clear guidelines on some of the more contentious issues surrounding the treaty which was ratified in 1999, but were not aimed at amending or scrapping the VFA.
“That’s not being considered,” De Lima said, reacting to calls for amendment or abrogation of the VFA.
“What’s being discussed are just the implementing guidelines,” she said, adding that these would be consistent with the provisions of the agreement.
De Lima said the guidelines would just “correct deficiencies, gaps or loopholes in the agreement which lead to the differing or varying interpretations.”
De Lima declined to comment when asked how the government would address calls for an abrogation of the treaty.
“I don’t think I am in any position to make any declaration with respect to that. That kind of decision should be addressed at the highest level,” De Lima said.
De Lima reiterated that the move to review the VFA came months ahead of the Laude case. In fact, she said it was initiated to address issues emanating from the2005 rape case of Suzette Nicolas alias Nicole in Subic involving four US Marines led by Lance Corporal Daniel Smith.
Among the contentious issues cited by De Lima were “custody, jurisdiction and official duty.”
US Ambassador Philip Golderg said Washington was willing to review contentious provisions of the treaty.
“We’ve been engaged in talks over time with the Department of Foreign Affairs with the Department of National Defense about clarifying various aspects of VFA to the parties’ satisfaction,” Goldberg said.
“Any additional suggestions are up to the Philippines’ side, if they want to make additional suggestions. But they have to be mutually agreed. It’s a mutual agreement between two countries. It has to suit both our interests and objectives,” the envoy added.
But Goldberg said any adjustments should not be done in the midst of the controversy over the Laude killing.
“While we’re always open to talking to our friends and allies about these issues, this shouldn’t be done in the middle of something that we have to handle through rule of law,” Goldberg said.
“We can continue talking about it but it’s not part of this process. It’s part of the process between the countries to clarify what these things mean. If the Philippines wants to bring additional things to the table as [Justice Secretary Leila de Lima] suggested, that’s the Philippines right,” Goldberg said.
“The Philippines is free to raise issues that they want, but that doesn’t mean on the other side that it is immediately agreed to. There are two sides to an agreement,” he added.
Goldberg said the transfer of the suspect, PFC Joseph Scott Pemberton, to Camp Aguinaldo was already an “unsual step” for the US in consideration to the people’s sentiments, which was in contrast to Smith, who was detained inside the US embassy when he was on trial for rape in 2005.
The US envoy agreed that different parts of the VFA need to be clarified and Manila and Washington are already doing that, but that is not enough reason to rescind a good agreement.
“I can’t imagine abrogating VFA, but I don’t want to get into a political debate here,” Goldberg said.
At a budget hearing in the Senate, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario reaffirmed De Lima’s statement that the ongoing talks would not lead to any amendments to the VFA.
The review is procedural and had noting to do with the death of Laude, Del Rosario said.
While the treaty is being reviewed, it is not being renegotiated, Del Rosario said in response to a question from Senator Loren Legarda on the possibility of revising provisions on jurisdiction and custody of American personnel accused of crimes.
Legarda pointed out that the provision on custody and jurisdiction of the country’s VFA with Australia, ratified in July 2012, was more sensitive of Philippine laws.
But Del Rosario said that while the US currently has custody of Pemberton, the Philippines can formally seek custody once criminal charges are filed against him.
Pemberton is currently detained at a facility inside Camp Aguinaldo while the murder charge against him is undergoing preliminary investigation.
“We can be sure that he will not leave the country,” said Del Rosario. “The VFA, we intend to show the public it works and that justice will be served.”
In the House, an administration lawmaker described the VFA as “one-sided love affair” in favor of the United States and called for the treaty’s abrogation.
“I support the moves to abrogate the controversial VFA as the treaty is largely lopsided in favor of the United States especially as regards detention of US personnel accused of crime,” said Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian of the Nationalist People’s Coalition.
Gatchalian said he fears that US interests will again prevail at the cost of a Filipino’s life and the country’s dignity as charges were filed against Pemberton for the murder of a 26-year-old Laude, who was found dead in a motel in Olongapo City.
Although Pemberton is currently detained in Camp Aguinaldo, the principal suspect in Laude’s murder remains under US jurisdiction and custody during the pendency of the judicial proceedings under the provisions of the VFA.
“This is an opportunity for the government to prove its loyalty to the Filipino people by abolishing the VFA and by making sure that the accused will be placed under the jurisdiction of Philippine laws,” said Gatchalian, a majority member of the House committee on foreign relations.
“The VFA is a one-sided love affair between the Philippines and the US since it is only the Philippine government, which ratified the treaty and the US, while doing nothing, stands to gain most out of the agreement,” Gatchalian said.
Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon urged the Justice Department to recommend the termination of the VFA.
“The problem with drafting new implementing guidelines is that it gives Washington the opportunity to sneak in new provisions and interpretations that are favorable for them. We need to emphasize the fact that any changes in the VFA need to be approved by both parties. The DOJ drafting the new IRR doesn’t necessarily mean that the US will not have any hand in the crafting of the new guidelines,” Ridon, a member of the leftist Makabayan bloc, said.
“What’s more dangerous in Secretary De Lima’s proposal is that it opens an opportunity for the US to further undermine our sovereignty through the expansion of VFA’s coverage. That is why we are calling on Secretary De Lima to recommend the termination – and not the review and expansion – of the VFA,” Ridon said.
Ridon said merely drafting new guidelines on custody of US military servicemen involved in criminal offenses “will not solve the manifold faults of the VFA.”
“Concocting new implementing rules will not suffice to address fundamental flaws in the text of the agreement itself. It’s like saying that we can fix a flawed law by revising its IRR. It doesn’t work that way,” the legislator said.
Ridon reminded De Lima that aside from the provisions on custody of accused US servicemen, there are several other contentious provisions in the 15-year old VFA, including vague definitions of terms such as “activities” and “temporary visit,” which give the US military unlimited access to the Philippines for any activity they want to undertake at any time.
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