The VFA card
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - January 27, 2020 - 12:00am

In what could be a new precedent-setting foreign policy decision, the Philippines is set to break from another international agreement. Three and a half years into office of President Rodrigo Duterte, his administration has started the process of terminating the Philippine government’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.

Much earlier, President Duterte ordered then permanent representative to the United Nations and now Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to serve notice of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was in the offshoot of the filing of alleged crimes against humanity against President Duterte in connection with the reported extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of thousands of Filipinos in his administration’s anti-drug operations led by the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Jude Sabio filed a case in April 2017 at The Hague-based ICC as lawyer of the petitioners representing the families of the EJK victims. From out of the blue, Sabio subsequently withdrew this case last Jan.14. He claimed the communication he filed before the ICC was “nothing else but a political propaganda” of opposition Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes IV, and the opposition Liberal Party.

With the Philippine withdrawal from the ICC in May 2018 and now the withdrawal of the case filed by Sabio, what happens next?

Before he flew to Washington last Thursday, the DFA Secretary received notice from Malacañang of the latest presidential instructions to start the process of termination of the RP-US VFA which came into force in May 1995. The DFA Secretary co-chairs the Philippine VFA Commission along with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

In his extemporaneous remarks last Wednesday in Leyte, President Duterte threatened to terminate the VFA in a month if the American authorities would not reconsider its revocation of the US visa of ex-PNP chief and now Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.

“All that is required is that a notice of termination be served to the US government. The termination shall take effect 180 days after the date of the notice,” Lorenzana cited.

Under the VFA, American and Filipino troops are allowed to conduct joint training operations in Philippine territory.

But where did the termination of the VFA come from?

It was the offshoot of the approval of the 2020 US federal budget law that has a “rider” provision banning Philippine officials behind the detention of Sen. de Lima from entering the US.

Nonetheless, American President Donald Trump reiterated his invitation to President Duterte, along with the rest of heads of states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to attend the US-ASEAN summit. The summit is slated to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 14. This was announced in an official statement released by Malacañang last Jan.19.

The Malacañang statement disclosed the invitation was first conveyed to President Duterte during the ASEAN-US meeting in Bangkok in November last year attended by Trump and all leaders of the ten-member states of the regional bloc. The US President reiterated his invitation to the ASEAN leaders through a letter dated Jan. 9.

“As the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific makes clear, we share a common vision for the future of this dynamic and diverse region, based upon respect for sovereignty, commitment to good governance and adherence to the rule of law,” the US President wrote.

At that time, President Trump was facing then threats of impeachment from the Democrat-controlled US Congress. A full-blown impeachment trial is currently underway against President Trump at the US Senate controlled by his allies from the Republican Party.

Mr. Trump has a long-standing invitation for President Duterte to make a state visit in the US.  But the 74-year-old former Davao City Mayor pointed to long haul trips and cold weather as reasons he could not accept the invitation. But President Duterte has twice visited a much farther country like Russia. So that’s a flimsy excuse.

The White House invitation to President Duterte was sent out anew after the US federal budget that contains the controversial “rider” provision but which President Trump signed into law. Unlike President Duterte, President Trump is not empowered to do line-item veto of the US annual budget.

So even if the two Presidents are “beshies” – using the language of millennials to mean the best of friends – Trump signed the 2020 US federal budget law that effectively imposed this ban to the “jailers” of Sen. De Lima who included Sen. Dela Rosa.

 The provision on “Prohibition on Entry” mandates the US State Department to apply subsection (c) to foreign government officials about whom the secretary has “credible information” have been involved in the “wrongful” imprisonment of De Lima. Subsection (c) refers to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the US government to slap sanctions on persons tied to human rights violations, including banning them from the US.

Quick to draw to this US Senate-imposed ban, President Duterte immediately ordered our own Bureau of Immigration not to allow entry to the Philippines of US Democrat Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy, authors of the “rider” amendment, and US Sen. Edward Markey, supporter of the provision should the three American Senators come here.

Should the US government indeed impose this entry ban against any Philippine government official, President Duterte initially warned he would remove the visa-free entry privilege enjoyed by all Americans coming here by requiring them to first secure visas. Malacañang would later soft-pedal the presidential threat to clarify that it would not apply to thousands of Filipino-Americans who come and visit here as balikbayan.

President Duterte has a lot of bad memories in his personal list of why the US is in his bad side. It goes beyond Trump’s immediate predecessor, ex-President Barack Obama. 

So again, the question where did the VFA card of President Duterte come from? Go figure.

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