Senate panel to review VFA, other Philippine defense pacts

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate foreign affairs committee will review the Philippines' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States and other defense pacts in a hearing next week, its chairman said on Wednesday January 29.

Panel chairman Senator Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III and 5 other members of the Senate committee met on Wednesday to discuss how the chamber would address President Rodrigo Duterte's threat to terminate the VFA. 

In an interview with reporters, Pimentel said that at least two senators have filed a resolution calling for a hearing on the matter. 

"Ang sentimyentong lumabas ay kailangang magformal hearing na po ang committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement or matters related to it, especially in relation to the latest pronouncement of the President that he is possibly terminating it after 30 days," Pimentel said.

(There were sentiments during the meeting regarding the need for the committee to have a formal hearing on the Visiting Forces Agreement or matters related it, especially in relation to the latest pronouncement of the President that he is possibly terminating it after 30 days.)

Pimentel said that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) would be taken up as well, particularly on how the Philippines benefits from them. 

"Number 1, what benefits did the Philippines get from them? What is the national interest at stake in this agreements? Is the national interest still present up to today?" Pimentel said in a mix of Filipino and English.

The VFA, ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999, outlined guidelines for the conduct of American troops visiting the Philippines and is the foundation for military exercises between the Philippines and the US. 

It was an affirmation of Philippine and US obligations under the 1951 MDT, which is the two countries' commitment to defend each other in case of an external attack. The Benigno Aquino III-time EDCA, which provided for increased military presence of the US in the Philippines, operationalized the VFA.

Pimentel also said that the hearing would also tackle the Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement that the Senate ratified in 2012.

Senate's role

Pimentel said that the other senators who attended the meeting all pushed for a hearing on the matter. The senators included Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Ronald dela Rosa, Richard Gordon, and Grace Poe.

Pimentel said that it was high time to review the VFA, given that the Senate has legislative oversight on the agreement.

In a statement on Wednesday, Drilon said that the Senate should assert its role in the termination of treaties. 

"The principle of checks and balances, historical precedent and practice accepted as law in most jurisdictions, and the Constitution’s dictate for a shared treaty-making power require that a termination, withdrawal, abrogation or renunciation of a treaty or international agreement can only be done with the same authority that gave it effect – executive ratification with Senate concurrence," Drilon said.

Drilon had filed Senate Resolution 305, calling the Senate to "express its sense" that treaty withdrawals shall only be valid upon the concurrence of the upper chamber.

During the 17th Congress, at least 14 senators filed a resolution declaring that the Senate has a say in the termination of any treaty or international agreements.

The resolution was filed in 2016, after Duterte declared his intention to scrap the VFA and withdraw from the International Criminal Court. The same justification – that there's no need for Senate concurrence – led to the actual withdrawal of the Philippines from the ICC.

After Dela Rosa's US visa was canceled, Duterte again threatened on January 23 to scrap the VFA and asked Washington to "fix" the senator's visa within a month.

The following day, January 24, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said that he would "start the process" of terminating the VFA. But Duterte took a step back, as the Department of Justice announced that Malacañang ordered a "preliminary impact assessment" on the planned abrogation. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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