MANILA, Philippines – After initially kickstarting the termination of the 20-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States (US), the Duterte government is now taking a step back and is preparing an impact assessment report.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters on Monday, January 27 that Malacañang has ordered a "preliminary impact assessment on the possible termination of the VFA."
"We have just been instructed today to expand the scope of our study to include a preliminary impact assessment on the possible termination of the VFA," Guevarra said on Monday, the day he is supposed to submit his legal memorandum to President Rodrigo Duterte on the procedures to terminate the VFA.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said on Friday, January 24, that he would "start the process" of terminating the VFA, a day after Duterte said he would terminate the VFA because the US canceled the visa of his former police chief and now Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa. The visa cancelation is widely seen as an effect of the Global Magnitsky Act that imposes sanctions on human rights violators.
Guevarra could not categorically answer whether the termination is now on hold pending the assessment report.
"It is my understanding that the President has threatened, but has not given an order, to terminate the VFA. That's why his office has requested us to study the potential impact of such termination," said Guevarra.
Effects on EDCA, MDT
Guevarra and the Department of Justice (DOJ) was supposed to craft a memorandum that was "purely legal," meaning it would not touch on the "wisdom of the action."
Asked on Monday whether the assessment would now include impact on foreign relations, the effect on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – the operational aspect of the VFA – and the overarching Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Guevarra said: "Looks like ganun na nga (It looks like that's the case)."
"But I will ask to convene the Cabinet cluster on justice and security and/or the VFA commission for an in-depth and comprehensive impact assessment," said Guevarra.
The cluster includes the Department of National Defense (DND), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), and the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES).
Guevarra was unable to provide a timeframe to complete the assessment report, saying "'yung sa legal side madali lang, 'yung impact assessment ang kailangan ng masuring pag-aaral (the legal side is easy, the impact assessment needs extensive study)."
Asked why Malacañang suddenly wanted an impact assessment report when last week it had already started the process of terminating, Guevarra said: "Only Malacañang can answer that."
The VFA, ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999, was an affirmation of the Philippines and US' obligations under the 1951 MDT. The MDT was a commitment to defend each other in case of an attack. The Aquino-time EDCA, which provided for increased military presence of the US in the Philippines, operationalized the VFA.
Several progressive groups have tried to revoke VFA via the Supreme Court on grounds that it violates Philippine sovereignty and that it is a lopsided agreement that protects US soldiers who commit crimes here. The Supreme Court upheld the VFA in 2000 saying the Court was "without power to conduct an incursion and meddle with such affairs purely executive and legislative in character and nature." – Rappler.com