Duterte bans US travel for Cabinet officials

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    BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and RAYMOND AFRICA

    PRESIDENT Duterte last night barred Cabinet officials from going to the United States to attend any official engagements and activities as a “boycott” to what he claimed was a disrespectful treatment accorded by some American senators to him, his officials and the country.

    The President, in a chance interview at the sidelines of the 69th anniversary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), also announced he is not attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nation-US (ASEAN-US) special summit to be held in Las Vegas in March. He will also not send an official representative to the event.

    Duterte said he is skipping the event due to “strategic geopolitical reasons.”

    He tasked the Department of Foreign Affairs to inform the US government about his decision.

    At the same time, the President defended his decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which he said was not being done on a whim.

    He said a series of events had led to his decision, which started with the US senators’ plans to bar Philippine officials from entering the US over the detention of opposition Sen. Leila de Lima and the government’s bloody war on drugs.

    Duterte insisted his decision was not done just for Sen. Ronald dela Rosa but for all Filipinos, the same reason for ordering a US ban on his Cabinet officials.

    The ban will be indefinite, he added.

    SENATE REVIEW

    Meanwhile, senators will initiate their own assessment of the benefits the country has gained from the VFA that was forged with the United States in February 1998.

    Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said the Senate foreign relations committee, which he chairs, will convene Thursday next week (February 6) to look into the advantages and disadvantages of the VFA amid President Duterte’s threat to terminate the treaty as a retaliatory act to the decision of the US government to cancel the visa it has previously given to Dela Rosa.

    In an interview after a closed-door meeting of the six committee members, Pimentel said the panel will likewise review two other agreements between the Philippines and the United States – the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

    “We will review the VFA. Anyway, nakasulat din naman sa agreement ang kanyang periodic review and then meron kasing theory that VFA is an implementation of the MDT. So isama na natin. And since EDCA is an adjunct of the MDT, isama na natin (We will review the VFA because it is included in the agreement that a periodic review must be made. Then we will also review the MDT and the EDCA since there is a theory that the VFA is an implementation of the MDT and EDCA),” Pimentel said.

    The Senate panel’s move comes following the announcement of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra that President Duterte has ordered an “impact assessment” on the possible revocation of the VFA.

    Pimentel said the Senate review will cover the material, intelligence, and logistical benefits the country is receiving from the VFA, the status and implementation of the agreement, enforcement structure and protocol, problems and violations of the law committed, and its impact on national interest.

    Pimentel said the panel will likewise look into the status, implementation and impact of the country’s VFA with Australia.

    Once the assessment is completed, a committee report will be prepared and submitted to the plenary for deliberations.

    “Mag plenary debates ulit kami over the report. If the direction of the plenary is to submit a copy of the report to the executive department for their guidance, gagawin namin (We will have plenary debates over the report. If the direction of the plenary is to submit a copy of the report to the executive department for their guidance, we will do so),” Pimentel said.

    The senator expects to finish the assessment and plenary discussions on the VFA by March this year.

    Sen. Richard Gordon said he filed a resolution calling for a formal hearing to review the VFA.

    “Binigyan tayo ng Constitution na dapat the Senate must review and concur [with] all treaties and executive agreements, it doesn’t matter what you call it. (The Constitution provides that the Senate must review and concur with all treaties and executive agreements. It doesn’t matter what you call it),” Gordon said.

    BAD MOVE

    Gordon echoed earlier warnings that scrapping the VFA will be to the country’s disadvantage.

    “But at this time? Ang dami nating problema. Sinasagasaan ‘yung ating mga bangka, iniiwan, hindi nila nire-respeto ‘yung mga sundalo natin, pinapaalis. Hindi naman dapat I-abrogate. Baka mamaya lalong mamaga ang mga problema

    (But at this time? We have a lot of problems. The Chinese rammed our fishermen’s boat and abandoned them at sea; China has no respect for our soldiers, they want our soldiers out. It should not be abrogated because this might worsen the situation),” Gordon said.

    Gordon said that to his opinion, the President cannot just terminate the VFA without informing the Senate.

    “That’s my position for this particular issue because sovereignty issues na ito, territorial issues na dapat kasama ang Senado dahil kung sinasabi ng Constitution na dapat kasama ang Senado sa pagpasa, kapag I-abrogate mo dapat at least malaman ng Senado kung bakit mo ina-abrogate at malaman ng publiko

    (That’s my position for this particular issue because this involves sovereignty issues, territorial issues which require that the Senate must be involved. If the Constitution says that the Senate must be involved in the passage of an agreement, the Senate, at least, must be informed of the reason for its termination which we will tell to the people),” he said.

    Opposition Sen. Leila de Lima said the “irrational move” to terminate the VFA is “not the best move for the Filipino people and Philippine interests. It can only be good for certain foreign interests.”

    De Lima said decisions on matters of national interest “should not be based on one man’s pursuit of personal grudge, his bruised ego, or his attempts to look tough when, in truth, he has failed to fulfill his campaign promises and has been, for the last three years making up excuses and crises to cover up his failures.”

    “The issue about my continued persecution is a matter of fact. Not just the US, but also the United Nations, has looked into my case and has found it so. This is not a matter of naivete on their part, but of utter failure on Duterte’s part,” she said.

    This is the second time that the president had expressed to scrap the VFA. It was in 2016 when Duterte first threatened to terminate the joint military treaty after the US did not renew an aid package for the Philippines.

    SENATE’S ROLE

    Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon pushed for the passage of a resolution that will assert the role of the Senate in treaty termination or withdrawal, pointing out that treaties and international agreements become valid and effective only upon the concurrence of the Senate.

    Drilon cited Article VII, section 21 of the Constitution which provides that “no treaty of international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred by at least 2/3 of all members of the Senate” in pushing for the passage of the resolution.

    “A treaty or international agreement ratified by the President and concurred by the Senate becomes part of the law of the land and may not be undone without the shared power that put it into effect,” Drilon said in the resolution.

    Drilon first filed the resolution in 2017 during the 17th Congress. During that time, Drilon along with 13 senators stressed that the Senate should have a say when a treaty or international agreement is terminated or abrogated.

    Then neophyte Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao blocked its passage.

    Of the 13 who co-authored Drilon’s previous resolution, nine are incumbent senators, including Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto, Majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, Panfilo Lacson, Juan Edgardo Angara, Joel Villanueva and De Lima.

    While Drilon’s resolution did not pass despite having been signed by majority of the senators, succeeding resolutions were adopted by the Senate which provides for a provision requiring the concurrence of two-thirds of all members of the Senate before a treaty concurred in by the Senate is terminated.

    “The 17th Congress adopted 20 resolutions concurring in the ratification of or accession to various treaties and international agreements which provides ‘that the President of the Philippines may, with the concurrence of the Senate, withdraw from the Agreement’,” the senator said.

    Among these treaties include the Accession to the Protocol of 1988 International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea, Accession to the Protocol of 1997 Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, the Convention on Cybercrime, Asian Infrastructure Bank, a number of fishing agreement and ratification of the Paris Agreement.

    Drilon also said that the sphere of foreign affairs is not within the exclusive powers of the President as held by the Supreme Court in Saguisag v. Executive Secretary (G.R. No. 212426, January 12, 2016).

    “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 stressed. – With Noel Talacay