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Monday, October 27, 2014

Miriam Wants VFA Renegotiated DFA Says Review Ongoing

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing for a renegotiation of the 15-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) after both the Philippines and the United States failed to alter the “objectionable” provisions of the deal.
Santiago said she will file a proposed legislation on a resolution she introduced five years ago titled: “Resolution to Renegotiate or Terminate the VFA.”
“I’m proud to say that five years ago, when I filed the resolution and defended it on the floor of the Senate, the Senate subsequently passed the resolution. So we’ve already had five years for the two parties to renegotiate and in fact there is an ongoing panel headed by the Executive Secretary that is charged with this task,’’ she said.
“But it has never been renegotiated. It is time that the executive department of the government heeded the call of the legislative department to renegotiate this – or what some senators call review. There’s a review panel ongoing but they’re not reviewing it, much less renegotiating it.”
Appearing before the Senate finance sub-committee chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda Friday, Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alberto F. del Rosario said he is not sure the US government would agree to have the VFA amended. There are calls for the abrogation or renegotiation of the VFA following the killing of transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude allegedly by a US Marine Private First Class (PFC) Joseph Scott Pemberton in Olongapo last October 11.
Del Rosario and other DFA officials appeared before the Legarda sub-committee to defend the proposed P12.8-billion budget of the DFA for 2015.
Nevertheless, the VFA is being reviewed at the department level by DFA officials and US officials since last year, he said.
“We are reviewing the VFA in its entirety to see how we can fine-tune it. The sticky points are: jurisdiction, custody (of erring military men exemplified by the Pemberton case), and official duty. We are looking at all those,” he added.
Del Rosario assured Legarda, the concurrent vice-chair of the Senate national defense committee that Pemberton would not leave the country and would not be spirited out to evade facing Philippine courts.
Pemberton is currently held at the Joint US Assistance Group (JUSMAG) inside Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City where the Armed Forces and the Department of National Defense (DND) holds fort.
‘Although Pemberton is in a so-called detention facility, which is I think a van inside the military camp, he is being guarded by Americans. What for? What is he being guarded for? There are Filipino members of the Armed Forces who are already guarding the premises,’’ Santiago noted.
‘’I find that offensive to us, because it indicates that there is no trust on the capability of our own Armed Forces. If we did this in America, if, for example, there was a Filipino who was in a detention facility there by joint agreement of the two governments, and there were already American guards, can we insist that there be Filipino guards there? I find that unacceptable,’’she added.
Santiago cited several reasons why she feels the VFA should be scrapped. 


The VFA, she says “is void for vagueness.” It did not define ‘’visit’’ which is crucial. After 15 years, should it still be a ‘’visit’’ by US armed forces?The US is impecunious as its debt from China is $1.27 trillion.The VFA does not imply the US will come to the aid of the PH in case of a firefight between the PH and China in their territorial dispute over parts of the Spratly island chain, some islets and shoals such as Scarborough Shoal at the  West Philippine Sea. Then State Secretary Hillary Clinton stated in 2014 that the US will stay neutral in case of a Philippine-China fire fight.Although the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the VFA, the voting was split.US President Barack Obama’s ‘’Asia Pivot’’ strategy has been set aside because of the resurgence of violence in the Middle East and the Russian adventurism in Ukraine and in the Crimea. The 1955 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) does not provide for automatic US help in case the Philippines is actually  attacked as the White House still goes to Congress for approval for military intervention.The alleged financial benefits for the Philippines under the VFA for the most part consist of junk or outdated military equipment. The VFA is a failure because the AFP has not been modernized sufficiently to keep up with its Southeast Asian neighbors and terrorist groups are still active. 

“Let us not hide under the umbrella of the VFA. Let us turn to economic diplomacy with China,’’ Santiago stressed. 


As far as Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo is concerned, now is not the best time to review the 15-year old Visiting Forces of Agreement (VFA).  It should be done after the murder case against Pemberton is settled.
“The best time to review it is during sober times, not when passions are very high,” Quimbo said in an interview yesterday after US Ambassador Philip Goldberg stressed that the VFA review should not be linked to the custody issue of Pemberton.
AKO Bicol party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe, a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, agreed with Quimbo. “An objective review of the VFA cannot be done in a highly emotionally charged environment,” Batocabe noted.
“If we have to review VFA, we should do it not primarily because of what happened to Laude, but because it is a part of the regular process and once we start the review, the cases of Laude and Nicole should also be taken into consideration, among other issues,” he said.
“It is not a good time to renegotiate the VFA under emotionally charged environment,” he pointed out.
He said the renegotiation of the 1999 agreement “must be based on mutually beneficial concerns and not because of irritants and problems that arise from its implementation.”
“As it is, there is still a mechanism which has yet to be tested to deal with irritants such as the Laude murder. It is only when these mechanisms are not working when we should start renegotiating. So, let it work first,” Batocabe added.
Santiago, meanwhile, found an ally in the Lower House. 1-BAP party-list Rep. Silvestre Bello agrees that the VFA should be renegotiated
“I agree that the VFA should not be linked to the Laude killing but there is need to review the VFA to clear the gray areas on jurisdiction and more specially to emphasize the recognition and assertion of Philippine sovereignty,” Bello, a former justice secretary said.
Goldberg earlier said while the US government recognized the right of the Philippines to bring “additional things to the table” as far as the VFA implementing rules are concerned, the talks on VFA review “should not be done in the middle of something.”
Del Rosario, for his part said they are looking at the smooth implementation of the VFA “because if there is a material change, then we have to resubmit the whole thing to the Senate.”  


Despite VFA’s perceived lopsided provisions in favor of US, Malacañang believes the VFA is beneficial to the defense strategy of the country.
At the roundtable discussion at the US embassy Friday, Goldberg said nobody should question US commitment to Philippine security.
“Our security commitment as expressed by President Obama last April is iron-clad… we exercise together all the time, we entered into an enhanced defense cooperation agreement (EDCA) together, we’ve been working for many years with the Philippines on counter terrorism issues. Our commitment to the Philippines security is strong,” said Goldberg in a roundtable discussion at the embassy last Friday.
“We have backed the Philippines on issues related to the South China Sea, the case that it’s brought before the tribunal without taking a position on various claims and lent very strong diplomatic support and other support to the Philippines on their pursuit of their claims in the South China Sea. Again, without saying that the United States has a position on the claims,” said Goldberg.
“So I think that our support for Philippine security is clear.  It has been demonstrated… and so nobody should question our commitment to Philippine security,” he said.
 
 
 
  
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