SENATORS led by Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday questioned before the Supreme Court (SC) President Duterte’s decision to unilaterally terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States that governs the conduct of American troops while in the country during military exercises and maneuvers.
It was the first time that senators of the majority bloc has challenged a policy of the Duterte administration before the high court, as the petition filed last year questioning Duterte’s decision to withdraw the country from the International Criminal Court was spearheaded by minority senators.
In a petition for declaratory relief and mandamus, the senators asked the SC to issue an order directing Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to “forthwith refer the Notice of Withdrawal to the Senate of the Republic of the Philippines for its concurrence pursuant to Section 21, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution.”
Duterte was not included as respondent.
The senators also asked the magistrates to “render a decision declaring that a withdrawal or termination of a treaty or international agreement that had previously been concurred by the Senate requires the concurrence of two thirds of all the members of the Senate for the said withdrawal or termination to be valid and effective.”
A declaratory relief means the petitioners want the magistrates to clarify issues or questions about the law while a petition for mandamus seeks to compel the respondents to act or do something.
The 1987 Constitution is clear that a treaty needs the concurrence of two thirds of members of the Senate under section 21, Article VII but there is no clear basis for the requirement to quit a treaty like the VFA which was concurred by the Senate in 1999 and upheld by the SC itself.
This is what the senators want the SC to clarify.
“We want the final disposition on this issue: Does the power to ratify carry with it power to concur in the abrogation of a treaty or agreement?” Sotto told reporters after the petition was filed.
Sotto said they just wanted the SC to clarify the role of the Senate when it comes to the abrogation or termination of treaties or international agreements, stressing that the move was not meant as an affront to President Duterte.
“We will ask whether an agreement that is difficult to enter into can be revoked by a simple letter. Parang pag-aasawa or papasok sa anumang kontrata, pwede ba ang simpleng sabihin lang na ayoko na, that it’s game over? (It is just like getting married or signing contracts. Can we simply say we’re quitting, that it’s game over already?) In times and cases like this, the SC is the oracle we consult,” Sotto said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said they need the SC to define the constitutional boundaries between the executive and the Senate on the issue of treaty or agreement withdrawals.
“Senate President Tito Sotto has asserted and asked the high court what are the constitutional boundaries and if the said constitutional boundaries say that the Senate should be consulted, then that termination or abrogation should be sent to the Senate for its concurrence,” Drilon, who is a former secretary of the Department of Justice, said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said they filed the petition “not as individual senators but as a Senate body backed by resolution.”
Lacson was referring to Senate Resolution 337 urging Malacañang to review the VFA before ordering its termination. “We were backed by the whole Senate because of Senate Resolution 337,” he added.
Lacson noted that when minority senators challenged the country’s withdrawal from the ICC, they were not backed by a Senate resolution.
Sen. Richard Gordon said the petition will clarify the issues on the abrogation or termination of a treaty or agreement.
Manila views the VFA as a treaty while Washington’s treats it as an executive agreement that does not need the concurrence of their Senate.
“Mahalaga ito para sa ating bansa kasi makikita natin ang tatlong sangay nang ating gobyerno – ang ehekutibo, lehislature at judiciary ay magkikita kita upang malinawan hanggang saan ang kapangyarihan ng Pangulo (This is important as the three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary – would see and tackle the limits of the powers of the president),” Gordon said.
Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubbiri and Senate pro tempore Ralph Recto also signed the petition.