Palace explains Duterte’s VFA decision

Malacañang on Monday, January 27, said that President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States was not made on a whim, claiming that the move was due to a series of disrespectful acts by several American senators.

The VFA, which came into force in 1999, covers the conduct of U.S. soldiers in the Philippines.

Among the provisions of the deal include lax visa and passport policies for U.S. troops, and the rights of the U.S. government to retain its jurisdiction over its military personnel when they commit crimes in the Philippines.

On Jan. 23, Duterte threatened to scrap the VFA following the U.S.’ cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa’s visa. He gave the U.S. a month to “correct” the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa, however, he ordered the start of the termination process the following day.

Duterte received flak for his decision, with critics pointing out his readiness to drop a bilateral defense agreement because of a personal issue.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, for his part, insisted that the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa was not the only reason behind Duterte’s move to scrap the VFA.

“The cancellation of Senator Bato’s visa was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It was an accumulation, a series of disrespectful acts by some of the US senators,” he said at a press briefing.

“It’s not, as expressed by some, a decision on a whim. It is a studied response to acts the President deems to be not only an intrusion but an assault to the sovereignty of this country,” he added.

Along with the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s U.S. visa, the other developments that prompted Duterte to call for the VFA termination are: the demand of some American senators to release detained opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, the U.S. Senate resolution condemning the alleged human rights violations in the Philippines, and the introduction of a U.S. national budget provision that barred individuals behind de Lima’s detention from entering the U.S.

According to Panelo, the U.S. Senate resolution on the alleged human rights violations in the Philippines — which condemned the Philippine government for the “arrest and detention of human rights defenders and political leaders who exercise their rights to freedom of expression” and called for the immediate release of de Lima — was based on “a cycle of lies peddled by critics and detractors of the president.

He added that Duterte took the U.S. senators’ demand to release de Lima as “an intrusion and an insult to the judiciary system of this country.”

“To those who are thinking that this is a rushed judgment, let me remind them that this president is a tactical and thinking president who has never lost an election and who has tread a path that ordinary mortals, as well as even those pseudo-intellectuals, have not tread,” Panelo said.

He also said that the U.S. should have given Dela Rosa its reasons for the entry ban and the visa cancellation “as a matter of courtesy between countries who are allied.” 

Special privilege

Panelo claimed that the VFA is “a special grant of privilege agreement” because the pact does not let the Philippines to assume jurisdiction over crimes committed by American military personnel unless a particular crime is of particular importance to the Philippines.

“This is a very special privilege granted to the U.S. military personnel, ships and aircraft which are not given to the counterparts of this country,” he said.

He added that the VFA benefits the U.S. more than the Philippines.

“Strategically, the U.S. needs to be in any part of the world to secure itself from its perceived enemies,” Panelo noted.

However, former Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia Jr. did not share the spokesman’ sentiments.

“The VFA provides the flesh of Philippines-U.S. relations. No VFA, no military exercises, no counterterrorism presence,” Cuisia said on Monday, January 27.

According to him, the VFA served to “enhance the capability of the Armed Forces,” pointing out that the U.S.’ presence in the country provided the intelligence that led to the tracking of the people behind the Marawi siege.

“We have been getting assistance in terms of training for our military [and] they have been assisting us in terms of our counterterrorism efforts. That would not be possible without the VFA,” Cuisia said. 

He stressed that a better approach would have been to call for a review of the agreement, which he said Washington would likely be open to.

“They should identify what those provisions they want clarified or reviewed. I’m sure the U.S. government will not be unwilling to renegotiate those provisions,” Cuisia said.

Panelo, in response, told the former ambassador to the U.S. to read the VFA.

“He (Cuisia) doesn’t know what he is talking about… Read the VFA first. It just provided privileges. Even without that, our agreement with them remains the same,” he said.

Stay retired

Panelo also dismissed former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario’s call for Duterte to accept the invitation of U.S. President Donald Trump to attend the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit on March, suggesting that Del Rosario stay retired.

On Jan. 26, Del Rosario said the U.S. summit would present an excellent opportunity to discuss relations with Washington and improvement of mutual defense agreements.

“Should our president wish to improve the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) and the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement), he may wish to accept the invitation to meet President Trump,” Del Rosario said.

Panelo, for his part, reiterated that Duterte knows what he’s doing.

“I suggest he (Del Rosario) 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.

“These issues can always be brought up between countries that are affected by it. You don’t need a special summit for that,” he added. 

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