By Jeffrey Damicog and Argyll Cyrus Geducos
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has begun studying how to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States following the order of President Duterte to begin the process.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Friday, January 24, said the DOJ has been directed by Malacañang to look into it after President Duterte ordered the termination of the VFA.
“All I can say is that the DOJ has been tasked to study the proper procedure to terminate the VFA. We are doing it now,” he told reporters.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the President made the decision after the US government canceled the US visa of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.
The cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa also prompted Duterte to turn down President Donald Trump’s invitation to visit the US.
Duterte’s one-month deadline for the US to rectify the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa will no longer push through as he ordered the government to start the process of terminating the VFA already.
“Tinanong ko siya kagabi (I asked the President last night) when will the process start. ‘Tonight!’ So I relayed it to [Foreign Affairs] Secretary [Teodoro] Locsin,” Panelo said.
“The process of starting it has commenced, or will commence today,” he added.
Panelo explained that Duterte’s decision was based on the accumulation of the US’ alleged intrusion into Philippine sovereignty, particularly on their lawmakers’ call to release Senator Leila de Lima that resulted in a provision barring the entry of Filipino government officials supposedly behind her arrest and continued detention in the US.
“They cannot dictate at us or bully us into releasing a citizen of this country who is lawfully detained. When they introduced that amendment, [that is] tantamount, to our mind, as a disrespect,” he said.
“The President feels that we cannot sit down and just watch idly,” he added.
Termination of VFA
According to Panelo, Locsin, who will be going to the US soon, already convened a committee vice-chaired by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and asked them to already start the process of terminating the VFA.
Locsin described as “good move” President Duterte’s threat to scuttle the VFA.
“Good move. Visas fall under US Justice Department in the Executive Branch. Either they’re serious about US-PH military alliance or not,” Locsin said in a portion of his tweet.
In defending the President’s controversial pronouncement against the US, Locsin said, “They (US) can have De Lima after her trial. In fact they can pass a law making her a US citizen and part of US military so she is covered by VFA.”
Panelo described Duterte as “authoritative, serious, and assertive” when he made the order about ending the treaty.
“He was authoritative, serious, he was assertive,” Panelo said.
“They’ve been intruding into our domestic affairs, bullying us into submission. We cannot allow that. Meanwhile, they’re having privileges here tapos (and) they’re treating us this way,” he added.
The VFA between the Philippines and the United States exempts US military personnel from visa and passport regulations in the Philippines. It also benefits American military officers who are accused of committing crimes in the Philippines.
Panelo, however, said it was uncertain if Duterte will change his mind about terminating the VFA if the US corrects the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa.
Can Duterte terminate VFA alone?
Panelo said it was still unclear whether President Duterte can unilaterally terminate the VFA without the concurrence of Congress.
“There are two theories, and it is not been settled yet. Under the Constitution, the ratification of a treaty requires the concurrence of the Senate. That is why this VFA, considered to be a treaty, has the votes of the Senate. But the US considers this as an executive agreement. So the theory is if it is an executive agreement, you can terminate it,” he said.
“Second theory is, other lawyers are saying, it goes without saying since the Senate is required for its enforcement, so ‘pag tinerminate mo, kailangan din sila. Hindi settled ‘yan, eh (so you still need them if you decide to terminate the VFA. That’s not settled yet),” he added.
According to Panelo, the diplomatic relationship between the Philippines and the United States was not as warm as before.
“It’s lukewarm,” he said.
However, he refused to answer if the Philippines would cut ties with the US following the recent developments.
“Hindi ko alam yun (I don’t know about that). I will not tread on that,” Panelo said.
Panelo added that US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim wanted to have a meeting with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.
“From what I gather, the Ambassador wanted to have the meeting with the Executive Secretary [regarding] this, I think the development,” he said.
“Either today or tomorrow, basta magmi-meet sila (they will meet)… Exciting,” he added.
Dela Rosa visa
Dela Rosa had earlier revealed that he was informed by the US embassy that his 10-year visa has been canceled but was given assurance that he can apply again.
The senator believes the cancellation of his visa may have something to do with his involvement in the administration’s war on drugs during his time as Philippine National Police (PNP) chief.
Just last year, US President Donald Trump signed the 2020 US budget that includes provisions authorizing the State Department to prevent the entry of Philippine officials involved in the “wrongful” detention of De Lima, a vocal critic of the Duterte administration.
Earlier, Guevarra said the US and any other country have the right choose whoever to give visas.
“As I have said many times before, it is the absolute prerogative of any sovereign state to determine who may enter its territory, and it does not have to offer any explanation as to its action,” Guevarra previously said.
“Like any other ordinary Filipino citizen who wants to visit the US, Senator Dela Rosa will just have to try and try,” he advised. (With a report from Roy C. Mabasa)