Senators to DOJ: Legal stand on rice import quotas needed

Senate President Drilon says a vague interpretation of whether WTO quotas have been lifted is being exploited by rice smugglers

'WEAKENS CUSTOMS.' Senate President Franklin Drilon called on Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to clarify the government's legal stand on importing rice to guide the Bureau of Customs in going after shipments lacking permits. Photo by Alex Nuevaespaña/Senate PRIB

MANILA, Philippines – Senate President Franklin Drilon urged Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to clarify a legal issue on rice importation that threatens to undermine the government’s campaign against smuggling.

In a Senate hearing on rice smuggling on Wednesday, January 22, Drilon and his colleagues asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue a legal opinion on whether or not the Philippines can still impose rice importation quotas.

Rice importers have argued that the special treatment that the World Trade Organization (WTO) gave the Philippines to impose quantitative restrictions on rice importation already expired in June 2012. The importers said the lapse allows them to import rice without permits.

Drilon told De Lima: “Apparently, importers are taking a hiatus by seeking injunctions from the court. It’s important that you should issue a legal opinion so we know where we stand. It weakens the Bureau of Customs’ position unless something definitive comes from your office.”

In the hearing, Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner John Philip Sevilla said that rice importers have been citing the lapse to challenge the bureau’s seizure of shipments lacking permits. 

“The problem since the day I assumed office [in December 2013] is that our orders to maintain rice in various ports have been the subject of injunctions from regional trial courts, specifically in Davao, Manila, and Batangas,” Sevilla said.

“The BOC is not in the position to make trade policy. We just follow the law and the courts. We have no choice but to follow. So when there is an injunction, we have to release [confiscated] rice,” he added.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said it was his department’s position that the quotas will remain in place until 2017 while the Philippines is negotiating with countries about its WTO commitment.

Republic Act 8178 or the Agriculture Tarrification Act is the law imposing quotas on rice importation.

Agriculture Committee Chairperson Senator Cynthia Villar said that for her panel, Philippine laws “have supremacy” over the implementation of the WTO agreement.

Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr supported Drilon’s call.

“I have to echo the necessity of an opinion from the DOJ. Napapaikutan tayo (They are going around our laws). They’re hiding behind gray areas. That’s difficult for the Bureau of Customs,” Marcos said.

De Lima: We’re studying it

De Lima responded that her department is already studying the matter, and is looking at various interpretations to find a “middle ground.”

“Our legal department has an initial position. I tend to agree that in the strict legal sense, we are bound by the WTO. There’s got to be actions to address the hiatus,” De Lima said.

Yet the justice secretary also said that the DOJ came across jurisprudence where a court ruled against a judge who issued an injunction.

“We’re looking at the issue of jurisdiction. In the regional trial court cases, the BOC is represented by the Solicitor General. The Office of the Solicitor General has in fact filed motions for reconsideration in these cases. The basic premise, the central argument posed by the OSG, is that domestic laws are [superior to] international agreements.”

“We need a more definite opinion,” De Lima conceded.

‘Farmers very angry’

Farmers groups insisted that there was no contradiction between the Philippines’ WTO agreements and local laws.

Ernesto Ordoñez, chairman of the Alyansa Agrikultura, said that during an international meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year, there was no complaint about the Philippines’ quotas, and the government made it clear that it was still negotiating.

“The Davao court injunction is ridiculous. We will challenge that before the Supreme Court…. The WTO allows quantitative restrictions. There is no problem,” Ordoñez said.

Ordoñez reminded the legislators and officials that Filipino farmers are the victims of smuggling. (READ: Alleged rice smuggler admits using dummies)

“We farmers are very angry. Even as you look for [smuggler David] Tan, smuggled rice is going back to smugglers.”

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest rice importers. –