Monday, February 17, 2020

Senators to pursue VFA case before SC

Senators are pushing through with their bipartisan plan to question before the Supreme Court (SC) President Duterte’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States without the concurrence of the chamber. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon over the weekend said he would join Senate President Vicente Sotto III and other administration senators in filing a petition that will question in the SC the President’s move to abrogate the military pact that lawmakers and defense officials have warned could seriously undermine the country’s security, especially with China’s intrusions in the West Philippine Sea.

“This will be a bipartisan move to assert the Senate’s role in foreign policy. While the President is the chief architect of our foreign policy, the Constitution is clear that such a very critical role is shared with Congress, particularly the Senate,” Drilon said in a statement. In an interview with radio station dwIZ last Saturday, he said Sotto relayed to him that he is already preparing the petition and asked him to be a co-author.

Last week, Sotto said the Senate fully respects Duterte’s prerogative on foreign policy, but senators wants the SC to rule once and for all whether or not the chamber’s nod is needed for the termination of any treaty. Drilon said that since the Constitution is silent on the termination of treaties and international agreement, it is only the SC that can rule with finality on the issue.

“The Supreme Court should rule on this issue once and for all. We cannot continue putting the fate of critical treaties such as the VFA, which termination has far-reaching consequences, in the hands of one man,” he said. “It is our firm belief that if treaties and international agreements the President entered into cannot be valid without the approval of the Senate, the termination of, or withdrawal from, the same should only be effective with the concurrence of the Senate,” he added.

Once ratified and concurred in by the Senate, a treaty or an international agreement becomes part of the law of the land. Hence, a treaty may not be undone without that shared power that put it into effect, he added. In 2018, Drilon and minority Senators Francis Pangilinan, Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros, and then senators Paolo Benigno Aquino IV and Antonio Trillanes IV filed a petition urging the SC to declare the Philippines’ withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) “invalid or ineffective.” Drilon said that once the SC rules in favor of the ICC petition, the termination will be deemed invalid and the membership of the Philippines in the ICC will continue, saying that the VFA will benefit if the SC upholds the power of the Senate.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the committee on national defense and security, also expressed support for the filing of the petition, adding that there are many possibilities on how the SC would rule, particularly on the previous petition on the country’s withdrawal from the ICC. Lacson believes that there is something amiss in the constitutional provision that requires two-thirds votes in the Senate to ratify a treaty yet its abrogation is just left to the president, considering that the same critical issues raised during the ratification process will be brought up in any termination.

Lacson sided with Sotto on the issue of filing a petition before the SC amid rumors that the latter might be ousted upon the instigation of Malacañang. Sotto, Drilon and Lacson were authors of Senate Resolution 312 adopted on Feb. 10 urging Duterte to reconsider his decision until the chamber finishes its review of the VFA.

The morning after, however, Locsin announced that he had already sent the formal notice of termination to the US embassy in Manila.

“I know SP Sotto for a long time, the national interest is important to him than his position. He’s ready to be removed if that’s the consequence. Whether or not he would be removed (as Senate president) was not on his mind he took his stance (on the VFA),” Lacson told radio station dzBB in Filipino. He pointed out that SR 312 was carefully worded out of respect to Duterte.

Rumors of Sotto’s removal came at the same time as some senators on Feb. 11 separately made motions on the floor announcing their abstention from the adoption of the resolution the day before. They were Senators Pia Cayetano, Bong Go, Imee Marcos, Bong Revilla, Francis Tolentino and Cynthia Villar. Sen. Ronald dela Rosa abstained from the adoption of the document. Marcos said she was not aware that a voting was taking place.

Sotto, however, pointed out that the adoption was made on the floor with senators, including Marcos, present.

“All those who were counted for the adoption of the resolution are those who answered the roll call. That is not the fault of the leadership of the Senate. Why did you not object? Sen. Dela Rosa abstained. If you were in the (session) hall, you should have objected,” Sotto said. VP backs senators

Vice President Leni Robredo yesterday threw her support for some senators’ move on questioning the VFA’s abrogation before the SC.

In her weekly radio show “BISErbisyong Leni” over radio station dzXL, Robredo said bringing the issue to the high court would allow a “free” discussion and debate on the issue.

“Yes (I support it), for the greater good of the people,” the Vice President told her co-host broadcaster Ely Saludar when asked if she supports the move of a majority of senators. “Even if it will take a long process … a free discussion, where there’s no fear of intimidation or whatsoever, will create good results,” she said in Filipino.

Robredo, a lawyer, added that the SC would be the proper forum to tackle the benefits as well as the lapses of the defense pact.

Trump a ‘good president’ Meanwhile, Duterte on Saturday described US President Donald Trump as a good president and deserving of reelection later this year.

Duterte said he was not at all slighted or angry with Trump’s statement on his move to terminate the VFA.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Trump’s circumspect and judicious reaction to the VFA’s termination made Duterte conclude that Trump is a “good president.” Panelo added that the Duterte welcomed Trump’s statement that the VFA’s termination was fine with him as it could also save the American government money.

Trump’s view on the matter is different from others, apparently in reference to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s statement that the abrogation of the VFA is “a step in the wrong direction.”

Trump likewise stressed that despite the VFA’s termination, he still has a good relationship with Duterte.

Panelo said Duterte is glad that the American president understands and respects his decision to end the VFA. “In ceasing the effectivity of the VFA, he points to the legislative and executive actions of the US government, which we have previously elaborated, as his raison d’être,” Panelo added.

Duterte deemed such actions to be not only an offensive and blatant disrespect to the Philippine judicial system but an outright assault on the country’s sovereignty, according to the Palace spokesman.

“As a matter of principle and national pride, being the head of an aggrieved and insulted state, he has been compelled to take a bold, decisive and studied action,” Panelo said. He also stressed that had Trump been a Filipino and the Philippine president, given his character and principled stand on a matter of national interest, he would have done exactly the same thing Duterte had done, and if Duterte were the US president, he would have given the same reaction.

No-EDCA scenario 

In a related development, China will immediately gain the upper hand in the first several weeks of a shooting war in the South China Sea with the US, which will be hard pressed to deploy military assets to secure the region without the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines, a security analyst has warned. Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, stated in an article at the online War On The Rocks that an armed conflict in the South China Sea would inevitably spread to Northeast Asia, including Japan and Taiwan, making it very difficult for the US to wage two wars at the same time.

The article was published on Jan. 10, or less than two weeks before Duterte announced he was abrogating the VFA that provides the legal framework for the presence of American troops in the country for various joint military and humanitarian activities. Poling warned that contrary to common perception, it would be China – not the US – that would control the sea and airspace of the South China Sea at the outbreak of armed hostilities, thanks to its artificial island military bases.

“Without the EDCA, or some undiscovered (and unlikely) stand-in, US forces would have little choice but to concede the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to China in the opening stages of a conflict,” he said.