Process to end VFA pact with US on—Palace

The government has started the process of terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States following President Rodrigo Duterte’s order, a day after the Chief Executive lashed out at Washington for cancelling the visa of Senator Ronald dela Rosa.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said Friday the termination of the joint military pact with America was prompted by an “accumulation” of previous incidents.

“I asked him last night [Thursday], when will the process start?” Panelo said, referring to the VFA’s termination.

“Tonight,” Panelo said, quoting the President. “The process of starting it has commenced or will commence today.”

Ratified in 1999, the military accord outlined guidelines for the conduct of American troops visiting the Philippines.

The VFA was aimed at enhancing security relations between the Philippines and the US and for the American military to support the country against external aggression.

The agreement also allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over their military personnel accused of committing crimes in the country unless the crimes are “of particular importance to the Philippines.”

President Duterte’s decision to scrap the VFA came after the Dela Rosa confirmed the cancellation of his US visa, saying Washington officials informed him he could apply for another visa if he wished.

The neophyte senator was Duterte’s first Philippine National Police chief and is known as the architect behind the administration’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Apart from the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa, Panelo attributed the termination of VFA to other factors, such as the passage of the US government’s 2020 budget, which included a provision that bars entry of Philippine officials who were behind the imprisonment of Senator Leila De Lima, who is on trial on drug charges.

De Lima claims the charges against her are fabricated and politically motivated.

Asked to describe the country’s diplomatic relations with the US, Panelo said: “Maybe, we can say that it’s not as warm as before. It’s lukewarm.”

Washington has long been an ally of the Philippines, but its criticism of the goverment’s war on drugs—marred by allegations of human rights violations—earned the ire of Duterte.

“When you assail the sovereignty of one state, that is a big deal. They’ve been intruding into our domestic affairs, bullying us into submission. We cannot allow that,” Panelo said.

In an interview with RT, a Russian international television network, Duterte said that while he cannot expect the US to respect the Philippines’ sovereignty, he can get it from Russia and China.

“If I cannot get a credible posture from the Americans, I can get it from the Russians and the Chinese government. It’s because they respect the sovereignty of the country which America is totally, totally lacking,” Duterte said in the interview aired Friday.

“It’s not only the Philippines. It’s all over the world. They do not respect sovereignties of government,” he added.

Since he took office in 2016, Duterte has implemented an “independent foreign policy” and established warmer ties with Russia and China.

“America is not the Philippines and the Philippines is not America. It ain’t that way anymore. And I refuse to dovetail with American foreign policy. They are always antagonizing the Chinese,” the President said.

This policy, however, has not reduced Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte also turned down US President Donald Trump’s invitation for him to attend the US-ASEAN Summit that would be held in Las Vegas early March.

READ: Trump invites Duterte to US

This was not the first time Duterte declined Trump’s invitation to visit the US. Trump had previously invited him to Washington in 2016 and in 2018.

Dela Rosa was the first enforcer of Duterte’s internationally condemned campaign, in which police say they have killed just over 5,500 alleged dealers and users.

Human rights advocates say the true toll is four times higher and could amount to crimes against humanity.

The US State Department and the embassy in Manila have not responded to requests for comment about Dela Rosa’s visa.

Duterte went on the attack in a speech late Thursday.

“Now, they won’t let Bato go to America”, he said, using Dela Rosa’s nickname.

“If you do not make a correction there, one, I will terminate the bases—Visiting Forces Agreement,” Duterte added. “I’m giving... the American government one month from now.”

The Visiting Forces Agreement outlines the rules governing conduct of US troops participating in joint military exercises in the Philippines.

The pact gave legal cover for the resumption of large-scale war games between the two allies after the US military closed its Philippine bases in the 1990s amid rising anti-US sentiment.

Duterte also threatened in 2016 to cancel the agreement but has generally attacked ties with the US, including an announced “separation” from its former colonial master.

Until now the President has not made good on those threats, some of which came after then US president Barack Obama was critical of Duterte’s crackdown in 2016.

Relations between Washington and Manila under President Donald Trump, who has voiced support for Duterte, are on a stronger footing.

However, recent criticism from US lawmakers has introduced new tensions.

The Philippines in December barred US senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy, who were behind a measure to prevent officials involved in the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima from entering the US.

De Lima, one of the highest-profile critics of Duterte’s narcotics crackdown, has been held since February 2017 over a drug charge that she claims was fabricated to silence her.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Friday his department has been tasked to study the proper procedure for terminating the VFA.

Some senators said the pact can be revoked by the President even without the Senate’s consent.

“President Rodrigo Duterte can do that without the Senate’s approval or consent in the absence of a Philippine Supreme Court ruling on the President’s power to unilaterally break a treaty or bilateral agreement like the VFA without the consent of a 2/3 supermajority vote of the members of the Senate,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson.

Having said that, he said the Supreme Court should act soonest on whether the Senate’s consent is needed before the executive department can terminate a treaty or bilateral agreement--an issue raised in a petition filed before it by members of the Senate.Lacson said the VFA between the Philippines and United States is a bilateral accord that went through some back-and-forth diplomatic discussions prior to ratification by the Senate, after some intense plenary deliberation.

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III agreed that the President, as chief implementor of the country’s foreign policy and as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, can terminate the treaty.

“He can even say times have changed and it is no longer needed by the country,” Pimentel said.

He also said the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa for his role in the government’s drug war was interference in domestic policies.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon also said that while ratification of the treaty required Senate concurrence, its termination could be done without it.

Senator Francis Pangilinan said the cancellation of the VFA favors China, so “this is no longer surprising.”

Dela Rosa supported the VFA termination, saying the President was a leaderwho didn’t want his people treated unfairly.

“I don’t deserve this bargain but it is not all about me. He said it is about a one sided foreign relations,” Dela Rosa said.

“Is it just okay for their soldiers to be going in and out of our territory while a senator of this republic is barred from entering their territory due to their intentions of tinkering with our domestic affairs?” he asked.

A ranking leader of the House of Representatives who belongs to a militant party-list group on Friday said President Duterte’s move to terminate the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement is correct but was done for the wrong reason.

House Deputy Minority Leader Carlos Isagani Zarate at the same time challenged Duterte to “make good his threat to terminate the VFA, and include the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Coorperation Agreement with the United States.

This, he said, should be done to uphold the country’s sovereignty, not to avenge Dela Rosa.

“President Duterte should terminate these agreements because they are onerous and violative of our national sovereignty. They are vestiges of neocolonial control of the US, a tool for direct intervention in the country, facilitating for instance the return of their basing facilities, interference in the counterinsurgency operations,” said the Davao-based Zarate, who represent the party-list group Bayan Muna.

“He should do it not out of pique or just to use it as a leverage tool or bargaining chip for personal gains or out of spite. These agreements effectively transformed the Philippines as the biggest US base in the world and should have long been terminated,” he added.

Gabriela Women’s Party-List Group, on the other hand, branded Duterte’s threat to scrap VFA over De la Rosa’s visa cancellation “a childish bluff, [that] trivializes women and children victimized by US troops.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Friday backed President Duterte’s threat to cancel the VFA, calling it a “good move.”

Locsin said Washington’s response to Duterte’s move will determine if the long-time military ally is serious about its alliance with the Philippines.

“Good move. Visas fall under US Justice Department in the Executive Branch,” Locsin said, in on his Twitter account.

“Either they’re serious about US-PH military alliance or not,” he added.

Locsin said he already talked to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, as vice chairman of the VFA, to commence the process of terminating the visiting forces agreement.

Locsin’s tweet came after Senator Panfilo Lacson tweeted that the country’s top diplomat was “obviously joking” with his remark.

“You’re obviously joking, as I am now obviously stating the obvious,” the senator said.

But Locsin replied: “I wish.”

Lacson found President Duterte’s threat as “unfortunate and unnecessary,” saying the VFA is a bilateral agreement “that went through some careful and diplomatic discussion” while a US visa “is a conditional authorization granted to a foreigner and “may be cancelled without explanation or justification.”

“Pray tell, where is the connection?” Lacson said.

The US Embassy did not disclose the reason behind the cancelation of Dela Rosa’s visa, but the former Philippine National Police chief said it might have been because of his role in the Duterte administration’s bloody drug war. With Willie Casas and AFP

Topics: Visiting Forces Agreement , Rodrigo Duterte , Philippine National Police
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