It’s final: High court says VFA is legal

It’s final: High court says VFA is legal
By Dona Pazzibugan
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—The Supreme Court has reiterated the legality of the 1999 RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago once described as “void for vagueness” and “a failure.”

In a two-page resolution dated Jan. 12 but released only Tuesday, the full Supreme Court upheld its Feb. 11, 2009, ruling on the constitutionality of the agreement which re-allowed the large-scale presence of American troops in the country for joint military exercises after the 1991 pullout of the US military bases, and which governs the conduct of the servicemen participating in the military exercises.

The high court denied the motions for reconsideration filed by a number of individuals and groups led by the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) and former Senate President Jovito Salonga last year, at the height of the outcry involving US serviceman Daniel Smith who was convicted in 2006 by the Makati Regional Trial Court of raping Filipino woman “Nicole” but later acquitted by the Court of Appeals.

It said the petitioners had “failed to raise new arguments that would warrant” its reversal of its February 2009 ruling.

Chief Justice Reynato Puno had dissented from the majority decision at the time, saying the VFA fell short of meeting the requirement set by the Constitution that the treaty should be recognized by both the Philippine and US governments.

“The circumstances present in the case at bar and recent case law in the United States’ policy on treaty enforcement further expose the anomalous asymmetry in the legal treatment of the VFA by the United States as opposed to the Republic of the Philippines. This slur on our sovereignty cannot continue, especially if we are the ones perpetuating it,” Puno had said in his dissenting opinion.

US troops’ prolonged stay

Salonga, who headed the Senate in 1991 when it rejected an extension of the Military Bases Agreement with the United States, and other anti-VFA groups had asked the Supreme Court to revisit its decision to uphold the VFA’s constitutionality in the light of the prolonged stay of US troops in Mindanao and their alleged participation in combat operations against secessionist rebels and bandit groups there.

Lawyer Evalyn Ursua, who represented Nicole in the rape trial, also joined the motion for reconsideration questioning the legality of the agreement.

Salonga’s group had accused the US military of circumventing the Philippine Constitution and national sovereignty “under the pretext of conducting training exercises but are actually setting up a military position under long-term plans.”

It also argued that the agreements between Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo and then US Ambassador Kristie Kenney to transfer Smith’s custody from the Philippine police to the US Embassy were unconstitutional.

They said Smith’s case showed that the VFA violated the exclusive power of the Supreme Court to promulgate rules and procedure in all courts.

In violation of RP rules

Salonga’s group also said Section 6, Article V of the VFA was in violation of Philippine rules on criminal procedures.

The provision states that “the custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with United States military authorities, if they so request, from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”

But in its Feb. 11, 2009, decision written by Associate Justice Adolfo Azcuna, now retired, the Supreme Court said the VFA was “duly concurred in by the Philippine Senate and has been recognized as a treaty by the United States.”

Section 25, Article XVIII of the Constitution does not allow foreign military bases, troops or facilities in the Philippines “except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum … and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

But the Supreme Court said: “The VFA, which is the instrument agreed upon to provide for the joint RP-US military exercises, is simply an implementing agreement to the main RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (of 1951).”

Challenge to next leader

Commenting on the high court’s final ruling, Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said in a statement:

“Despite this legal setback, there will be other incidents that will put to question the constitutionality of the VFA.

“In time, the permanent basing and presence of US troops, as well as their combat involvement, will be further exposed.”

Reyes said he and his colleagues would “not tire of opposing US military intervention.”

“The challenge to the next president is to review and abrogate the VFA,” he said.

Sen. Jamby Madrigal, an independent presidential candidate, said: “We should reclaim our country’s dignity with the termination of the VFA. There is no other way.

“What is at stake here is our sovereignty and dignity, our freedom and rights as a free country that has been negated by our government’s submission to US interests.”

Madrigal said the VFA “serves no purpose other than the protection of US military and economic interests in our country.”

“The government should take up the option of peaceful negotiations as the most viable way to resolve internal conflicts rather than preemption and aggression, which the VFA essentially is,” she said.

‘Shabby country cousin’

Late last year, Santiago, the chair of the Legislative Oversight Committee on the VFA, led other senators in calling for the renegotiation and even termination of the agreement.

Santiago said in a speech that while the United States called the Philippines “a major non-Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally,” it had been “treating us like a shabby country cousin.”

“The fatal flaw of the VFA is the failure to specify the period of stay of visiting forces, and the failure to define the ‘activities’ that they can engage in while in Philippine national territory,” Santiago said.

“The VFA is void for vagueness because it fails to define the crucial terms ‘visit,’ ‘temporary’ and ‘activities,’” she said. With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada and Eliza Victoria, Inquirer Research

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.