The decision of President Rodrigo Duterte to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is a “studied response” against the United States for meddling in Philippine internal affairs, Malacañang said.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Duterte’s decision was prompted by an “accumulation” of a series of disrespectful acts made by some American senators against the Philippines government and its officials.
Contrary to critics saying that it was a rushed judgment, Panelo said the cancelation of the visa of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, Duterte’s close ally, was “the last straw that broke the camel’s back”.
“It’s not, as expressed by some, a decision on a whim. It is a studied response to acts that the President deems to be not only an intrusion but an assault to the sovereignty of this country,” Panelo said in a Palace briefing.
“To those who are thinking that this is a rash judgment, let me remind them that this President is a tactical and thinking president,” he added.
Besides the cancelation of dela Rosa’s US visa, Panelo named three other reasons which prompted the President’s decision to cancel the VFA.
One of these reasons is the repeated calls of some American senators for the release of detained Senator Leila de Lima, which he described as an “intrusion and an insult to the judiciary system of this country.”
Panelo said Duterte also frowned upon the US Senate resolution condemning alleged violations of human rights which he claimed are “lies” peddled by Duterte’s critics and detractors.
The third reason that led Duterte to want to scrap the VFA was the introduction of an amendment to the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Section of the US budget program.
A provision of the US 2020 budget earlier signed by Trump, titled “Prohibition of Entry,” gives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the authority to prevent Philippine officials involved in de Lima’s detention from entering the US.
In response, Duterte blocked the entry of three US senators Richard Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Edward Marky for calling for de Lima’s release and supporting the US entry ban.
Panelo, also Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, required the US to explain the reason for the barring of officials involved in de Lima’s detention and for dela Rosa’s visa being canceled.
De Lima has been detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center at Camp Crame in Quezon City since February 2017 following her alleged role in the rampant narcotics trade inside the national penitentiary during his stint as Justice secretary.
Benefits the US more
Although he said the planned termination of the VFA was least likely to affect other agreements aimed at boosting military alliance between the Philippines and the US, Panelo emphasized that existing deals benefitted the latter more.
“I think the treaties benefit more the United States than the Philippines. Strategically, the US needs to be in almost any part of the world to secure itself from its perceived enemies,” Panelo said.
Panelo explained that among others under the VFA, the Philippines cannot assume jurisdiction over crimes committed by US military personnel unless the particular crime is of particular importance to the Philippines.
He said even in those cases where the Philippines can assume jurisdiction, under the VFA, the courts are required to finish it in one year with respect to the legal proceedings.
“So under the VFA, they cannot even be arrested or detained; they cannot even be tried in religious and military courts. They’re exempted from the requirements on visa and passport. To top it all, the US aircraft and vessels can move without restriction in the Philippines, unrestricted movement,” Panelo said.
Panelo, however, assured that should the VFA be terminated, the Philippines would still have jurisdiction over US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton for killing Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.
“Without the VFA, all crimes committed in this country, Philippine courts have jurisdiction. That’s only a privilege granted to them. And we assume jurisdiction precisely because that crime was of particular importance to us,” Panelo said.
The VFA, signed in 1998, accords legal status to visiting US troops in the country for military exercises and humanitarian assistance operations without the need to be subjected to passport and visa regulations.
It also gives the US jurisdiction over its military personnel when they commit crimes in the Philippines, unless these are punishable in Manila.
The VFA can be terminated by writing to the other party about their desire to scrap the deal.
Avoid being a lapdog
In an interview over ANC, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar shared Panelo’s sentiment, stressing that the basis for Duterte’s decision is the continuous disrespect on Philippine sovereignty and its judicial system.
“The Visiting Forces Agreement is a treaty that is based on mutual trust and respect. Now, if there is no longer a respect for the country that you have a deal or a treaty with, then there is a problem there. So, we standby the President’s decision,” Andanar said.
He pointed out how previous administrations had always given the US a “freehand” on making decisions on behalf of the Philippine government.
Andanar said by terminating the VFA, Duterte is sending the message that that Philippines is an “independent country.”
“Since the 1940s were already independent and we should stop being a lapdog on the United States. It’s really a matter of the Philippines sending a message to the United States that we are not succumbing to their neocolonialism way of treating the Philippines,” he added.
Meanwhile, Panelo shrugged off the suggestion of former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario for the President to accept the invitation of US President Donald Trump to attend the Southeast Asian Leaders Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada this March.
Del Rosario said accepting Trump’s invitation would allow Duterte to place on the table his full expectations on Philippines-US bilateral relations.
“I suggest he stays retired. The President knows what he is doing. He doesn’t need advice from those who have failed in their term as government officials, especially from the one who lost the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese government,” Panelo said.
Both Duterte and Panelo have repeatedly blamed del Rosario for losing control over the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) during the previous administration.
Panelo said the issues in relation to bilateral agreements between the Philippines and US do not need to be brought up during the US-Asean Summit since they could be discussed at another time. (PNA)