VFA – the bigger picture

- The Philippine Star

The death of transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude involving US Marine Joseph Pemberton as the primary suspect couldn’t have come at a worst time just as the Supreme Court is set to rule on the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario painstakingly worked on the new agreement for two years with the end in view of strengthening our country’s external defense capability in the light of what is happening in the West Philippine Sea — for the security of our country now and in the future.

At the 9TV public affairs program “Opposing Views” hosted by Atty. Rod Nepomuceno where I was a guest along with UP Political Science Professor Amado Mendoza, the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement and whether it should be repealed by the Philippine government was the topic of discussion, obviously fueled by the upsurge of emotions over the killing of Jeffrey Laude.

It can be recalled that the VFA — from which EDCA was anchored on — was ratified by the Philippine Senate during the time of president Joseph Estrada. Erap used his political capital to have the treaty passed, convinced that American assistance was important in beefing up our external security and in containing the Abu Sayyaf Group that was sowing terror in Mindanao. The fact is, it was through the help of the US marines and their high tech equipment that finally located ASG leader Commander Robot that eventually led to his death.

It’s clear a sore point with the VFA is the “custody issue” regarding US military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines. Article V, Paragraph 6 states that “the custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with United States military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”

Admittedly, the case of Pemberton is different from that of Daniel Smith — who was found guilty of raping Suzette Nicolas — but whose conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals after Nicole’s recantation. This time however, we are talking about a victim’s death. Those calling for the abrogation of the VFA overlook the fact that although Smith remained in US custody, the Americans fulfilled their part of the agreement, as Smith was made readily available for the duration of the trial and placed under the jurisdiction of Philippine courts.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg and the State Department have already given assurances that they will cooperate and adhere to Philippine laws — I have no doubt we can count on them in this regard. Also, our meetings in Washington, DC two weeks ago at the Pentagon with Joint Chiefs of Staff Deputy Director for Politico-Military Affairs for Asia General David Stilwell and at the White House with NSC Senior Director Evan Medeiros gave me a sense that there is clearly a bigger picture in our relationship with the United States as far as the VFA is concerned — an important ingredient of the US pivot to Asia policy.

A possible solution which we have been pushing for as an amendment to the VFA is to confine the soldiers in just one area and apply “tight liberty rules” like they did in Okinawa where curfews and travel restrictions were set for American troops. Let’s face it, US soldiers are not here as tourists; they are here to do a job and not R&R. Another possible solution which Professor Mendoza raised during Rod Nepomuceno’s TV program is for Philippine and US authorities to have joint custody, which would require the construction of a facility to specifically hold American military personnel accused of any crime. We all know the horrible conditions of our jails — which is one of the reasons why our senators implicated in the PDAF scandal are in the PNP custodial center. So, can we honestly blame the US in insisting on custody for the safety and health of its soldiers?

A recent survey shows that 90 percent of Filipinos are in favor of stronger American presence in the region and participation in enhancing the capability of our military. People feel helpless in the face of an external threat, and should that possibility arise, we will definitely need the US. We’re also looking at Japan to start strengthening their military capabilities and ultimately assist our armed forces. Undoubtedly, it is also in the interest of Japan to keep the balance of power in the region, the same with our Asian neighbors who are all concerned about China’s aggressive moves.

All of us Filipinos want to see our country become self-reliant and capable of defending our shores, but the practical reality is that our AFP does not have the wherewithal to do that just yet. Let’s not also forget that another important aspect of EDCA is the humanitarian and disaster response. The Yolanda disaster alone proved that we are not yet capable of responding to a major disaster without help from our friends. The quick response from the United States in sending the aircraft carrier USS George Washington literally saved thousands of lives with their Osprey aircraft, food drops and water desalination process tanks. The current Ebola pandemic crisis is also something to worry about. God forbid — we will need a lot of help considering we have so many OFWs working in the affected African countries.

There is no doubt we all want justice for Jennifer Laude, but we must follow the process. Looking at the bigger picture, let’s remember what JFK once said: “…Explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

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E-mail: [email protected]

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