Scrapping VFA untimely, says Sotto

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    SENATE President Vicente Sotto III yesterday said the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and United States government is not timely as he expressed confidence that majority of senators will support a resolution calling on President Duterte to reconsider his decision to scrap the treaty.

    “Tingin ko more than two-thirds siguradong sang-ayon. Sa Senado, parte kami rito, kami nag-ratify eh. Tingin namin hindi dapat at hindi napapanahon (I think more than 2/3 of the senators will support [the review instead of termination of the VFA].We in the Senate was part of this since we ratified the agreement. For us, it [termination] is not timely and appropriate),” Sotto told Dobol B sa News TV.

    Sotto, along with Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson last week filed a resolution urging Duterte to reconsider his plan of ending the 21-year-old agreement as the Senate does its own impact assessment if the treaty is scrapped.

    The resolution has yet to be voted upon by senators.

    Drilon said a review of the VFA will be useless once Duterte formally orders his officials to send the notice of termination of the agreement.

    “I will wait for the announcement of the President. If the President directs the termination of the VFA, a Senate review of the agreement is a waste of time,” Drilon said.

    Last week, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, Senate foreign relations committee chair, held a hearing with Cabinet members to determine the effects of the termination.

    Pimentel said the Senate will still continue to review the VFA even if the notice for termination is already sent to the US since it will take 180 days for the treaty to be considered to have formally been ended.

    Drilon, a former Senate president, said once the VFA is scrapped, it will adversely affect the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which he said cannot legally stand on its own since its legality is drawn principally from the VFA.

    He noted that when the Supreme Court in 2016 upheld the legality of EDCA, it was because the US and the Philippines have an existing treaty that is already concurred in by the Senate, which was the VFA.

    Specifically, he said the Supreme Court, in Saguisag v. Executive Secretary, ruled that EDCA seeks to be an instrument that enumerates the Philippine-approved activities of U.S. personnel referred to in the VFA.

    “Now if you terminate the VFA, EDCA is dead. Without the EDCA, (the) MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) is rendered inutile. I agree with Foreign Affairs Secretary (Teodoro Jr.) Locsin that without the VFA and EDCA, MDT ‘is just a piece of paper’,” he said.

    Drilon said the termination of the VFA is a death sentence to long-standing Philippines and United States defense alliance.

    “This is because the presence of US personnel, vessels and aircrafts in the Philippines is allowed by virtue of the VFA. If and when the VFA is terminated, the US is likely to terminate ongoing activities by its troops and personnel in the country and halt information, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. The pullout of US rotating troops and military equipment out of the country will leave some parts of the country vulnerable (Mindanao, Sulu and the West Philippine Sea),” he warned.

    Sen. Richard Gordon said that Duterte, being the architect of the country’s foreign policy, can terminate the VFA but must clearly point out the reasons for the withdrawal since it involves national security.

    “I submit to the power of the President to enter into an agreement and have that agreement ratified – that is in the Constitution. But on matters where the national security is concerned, at the very least, the Senate must express its position to the President. ‘Mr. President, we ratified this agreement, we debated it. Now you’re removing it, we want to know why you are removing it? What are we going to do? What are we going to do with our military?” Gordon said.

    Gordon said it is incumbent upon the Senate to still make a review of the agreement even if the President terminates the agreement.

    “Whether or not he cancels, we have to discuss it, we have to educate our people so they will know what’s going on…The Senate should speak up, as representatives of the people, to find out what is the reason. People ought to know, are we being put in a harm’s way, are our troops being put in a harm’s way?” he added.

    Gordon also stressed that national interest should be the only consideration when entering into or withdrawing from international treaties or agreements.

    “It is really important for us to really make a determination and to make the decision on the basis of the total security of our people. Protect our people first. We can play with any country but the only consideration should be, ano ang kabutihan nito sa Piipinas? What is the good thing that we will get out of this?” he said.

    President Duterte had threatened to scrap the VFA if the US will not correct the cancelation of the US visa of his ally Sen. Ronald dela Rosa.

    Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent spokesman Salvador Panelo said the President on his own had already conducted a careful study on the VFA issue before he decided to order its termination.

    “The President is the chief architect, hindi siya kailangan mag-consult. Magaling na Presidente, abogado pa. Kung mayroon siyang doubts on certain area, siguro that’s the time he consults (The President is the chief architect [so] he does not need to consult. A capable president and a lawyer to boot. If he has doubts on certain areas, maybe that is the time he will consult),” he said.

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., during a Senate hearing last week, said he and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana were not consulted before the President announced that he wants the VFA terminated.

    Locsin, who said it would be the Philippines’ loss if the VFA is terminated, said he had prepared the notice of termination but had not sent it as he is waiting for the President to personally order him to send the letter of termination. – With Jocelyn Montemayor