Lacson questions ending VFA to get Dela Rosa's visa back

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Senator Panfilo Lacson questioned President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to end the Philippines' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) following the cancellation of the US visa of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa.

"Where is the connection?" Lacson asked on Friday, January 24, saying that bargaining VFA with Dela Rosa's visa are two different things.

"The Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and United States is a BILATERAL accord that went through some back-and-forth diplomatic discussions prior to ratification by the Senate, after some intense plenary deliberation," Lacson said.

"On the other hand, the US visa is a conditional authorization UNILATERALLY given to a visiting foreigner which may be granted, canceled or even denied outright, without need for explanation or justification," he added.

Lacson, whose US visa was also canceled, said he didn't make an issue out of it. His visa was revoked after the 2000 case where he got classified information from then-White House security specialist Leandro Aragoncillo.

"I never make an issue out of it for the same reason that I am saying now – it is the US government’s right, as it was only my privilege to be granted the same," he said.

In another tweet, Lacson also cited the significant help that the Philippines had been receiving from the US under the VFA.

"International terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir Marwan was neutralized with the technical assistance extended by the US. The VFA has provided our AFP the military training and equipment, thus upgrading their capability. That and more may be missed," he said.

Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya was also neutralized in June 2002, also with the help of US tecnical assistance.

Dela Rosa, meanwhile, said that the President's bargain is "not all about him."

"He is a leader who doesn’t want his people treated unfairly. I don't deserve this bargain, but it's not all about me. It is about a one-sided foreign relations," said Dela Rosa, who has a lot to lose with the visa cancelation as he has relatives in the US.

Issue on Senate concurrence

Several lawmakers had raised the issue of treaties that may easily be revoked by the President as he wished, because of the lack of safeguards such as Senate concurrence.

"While Senate ratification was needed to make the VFA valid – which the Senate did during presidency [of Joseph Estrada] – it can now be terminated without concurrence of the Senate," Drilon said.

During the 17th Congress, at least 14 senators had 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 had declared intentions to scrap the VFA and withdraw from the International Criminal Court. The same justification led to the actual withdrawal of the Philippines from the ICC.

The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision on the Philippines' withdrawal from the ICC, which may set the guidelines on terminating international agreements.

"In the absence of a Philippine Supreme Court ruling on the President’s power to unilaterally break a treaty or bilateral agreement like the VFA without the consent of a 2/3 supermajority vote of the members of the Senate, the President can do that without the Senate’s approval or consent,"  Lacson said.

"The Supreme Court should act soonest on whether the Senate’s consent is needed before the executive department can terminate a treaty or bilateral agreement – an issue raised in a petition filed before it by members of the Senate," Lacson added.

Foreign interference?

Senator Francis Pangilinan said that ending the VFA is in line of Duterte's pivot to China.

"Pabor sa China ang pagterminate ng VFA, kaya hindi na katakataka ito. (The termination of the VFA is in favor of China, so this is not surprising)," Pangilinan said.

The senator also added that the President should have focused on other things such as the welfare of the residents affected by the Taal Volcano eruption and the threat of a new coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III said that he understood the decision of the President even if it sounds "personal."

"The reason stated by the president for terminating the PH-US VFA may sound "personal" but I see the point of the President. He believes Sen Bato is being punished by the US for having once been the implementor of his main program of government – the all-out war against drugs," Pimentel said.

Pimentel added that such punishment reeks of foreign interference to domestic policy.

"Since that is domestic policy (war on drugs) then punishing someone – even if indirectly – for a domestic policy shows the intent to interfere by a foreign state with PH domestic policy," Pimentel said.

The VFA, which took effect 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, some of which the Duterte adminstration has already stopped.

Duterte first threatened the abrogation of the VFA in 2016, when the  Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US aid-giving body, did not renew its grant to the Philippines over human rights concerns on the Philippines' war on drugs. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.

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