'More to lose' for PH if Bato visa woes prompt VFA scrapping: ex-envoy

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 24 2020 04:16 PM | Updated as of Jan 24 2020 10:57 PM

Philippine Navy personnel watch as the US Navy's multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Wasp cruises in the background during the Balikatan 2019 on Thursday off San Antonio, Zambales. Balikatan is one of annual war games under the Visiting Forces Agreement, which President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to scrap after one of his allies and ex-drug war head, Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, said the US canceled his visa." Bulit Marquez, AP Photo

MANILA (UPDATED)—President Rodrigo Duterte’s outburst over a close ally’s cancelled US visa has put the spotlight back on a 2-decade-old military deal, which Philippine senators once sought to either renegotiate or terminate.

Senators, in a 2009 resolution, insisted that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was invalid because Washington did not consider it as a treaty, even if it was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier that year.

The Philippine constitution requires that agreements such as the VFA should be “recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state,” said the late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who led the powerful legislative oversight committee on the accord.

But the US president merely transmitted the VFA to the US Congress as an “international agreement” which is “not characterized as a treaty,” according to the resolution signed by 7 senators.

Three of them are incumbent senators: Richard Gordon, Francis Pangilinan, and Panfilo Lacson.

The high court settled issue by ruling that the VFA merely implemented the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington.

But nowhere in the VFA, which covers the presence of American troops on Philippine soil, was the defense treaty mentioned, the senators said, noting that both deals were “separated in time by almost 50 years.”

BATO’S VISA PROBLEM

More than a decade later, Duterte warned that he would scrap the VFA for an entirely different reason—Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa’s US visa was cancelled.

Duterte gave the US one month to restore Dela Rosa’s privilege to travel to there.

“You will put at risk the relationship between the US and the Philippines because of that? To me, it doesn’t make sense,” Jose Cuisia Jr., Manila former ambassador to Washington, told ABS-CBN News on Friday.

It’s not clear why the US cancelled Dela Rosa’s visa. But it came after the US Congress activated the Global Magnitsky Act, a landmark law imposing targeted sanctions on human rights violators.

The US Congress instructed the state department to deny entry to Philippine officials behind the arrest and detention of opposition Sen. Leila De Lima.

A separate US Senate resolution also sought to apply sanctions under the Magnitsky law on officials behind extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s drug war.

Before he was elected to the Senate last year, Dela Rosa headed the Philippine National Police, the chief implementer of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 5,500 people.

BIGGEST LOSER

The Duterte administration should verify first if Dela Rosa’s visa was cancelled as a “diplomatic sanction” implementing the Magnitsky law, said Aaron Jed Rabena, research fellow at the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress, a Manila-based foreign policy think tank.

“Perhaps, the president just became impulsive because he thought that what the US did on Senator Bato was a form of diplomatic sanction,” he told ABS-CBN News.

Cuisia said Washington would be “watching carefully” if Duterte would indeed scrap the VFA, noting that the president had also issued unfulfilled threats in the past.

“When he’s hurt, he utters statements, sometimes, without thinking of the consequences,” the former ambassador said, warning that the Philippines would have “more to lose” if the VFA was terminated.

Cuisia cited the technical assistance provided by US special forces to the Philippine military in ending the 2017 siege of Marawi City by ISIS-linked local terrorists.

Two of the largest ships by the Philippine Navy — the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and the BRP Ramon Alcaraz — were also donated by Washington.

“I hope he considers these things before he makes actions like that,” Cuisia said, citing Duterte’s threat to terminate the VFA over Dela Rosa’s visa problem.

“The biggest loser will be the Philippines. I don’t know if he realizes that.”

TREATY OR EXECUTIVE AGREEMENT?

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, in a statement Friday, said his department "shall deal with the procedure for termination only, not the wisdom of the executive action.

"We shall answer such questions as: Is the VFA a treaty or an executive agreement? If it’s a treaty, is Senate concurrence required for termination? Who will give the notice of termination? Is it necessary to state any ground for termination?" Guevarra said in a statement.

The justice chief said his department was tasked to study the proper procedure to terminate the VFA and is "doing it now."

Defense chief Delfin Lorenzana meanwhile said he and other defense and military officials will meet with Duterte to discuss the termination of VFA.

"I will discuss with the President the various scenarios concerning the possible termination of the VFA and what future actions may be undertaken by the DND (Department of Defense) and AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) regarding this matter," he said in a statement.