POSTSCRIPT / August 6, 2000 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Memo to solons: You’re lawmakers, not diplomats

THE holding of Sen. Gregorio Honasan at a US port of entry for extended interrogation despite his diplomatic passport highlights the shameless proliferation of Filipinos carrying diplomatic passports.

Like the battered peso, the Philippine diplomatic passport has lost much of its market value. This is because of its perfunctory issuance to a myriad of characters who are really not diplomats but just persons of influence.

As a result, in many no-nonsense countries such as the United States, our diplomatic passport no longer guarantees diplomatic immunity and hassle-free entry. If you’re a Filipino, even (especially?) if you flaunt a diplomatic passport, you’re still suspect.

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IN the case of Honasan, his being pulled from the line for lengthy interrogation is not an offshoot of his bearing a diplomatic passport but of coded information in his visa records tagging him as an international terrorist.

With this derogatory information, he is liable to be interrogated when he shows up at the US border. In his 1997 US visit, he was detained for about 30 minutes. It was worse in 1995 when he was held for over an hour.

The senator is usually bombarded with questions along the lines of his political beliefs, his agenda in the US, and his involvement in several coup attempts during the administration of President Aquino. (This treatment shows the falsity of claims that Honasan’s juvenile antics then had Uncle Sam’s blessings.)

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IN a trip to Los Angeles in 1997, a Fil-American immigration officer who recognized Honasan interceded for him. It was this kababayan in the federal service who informed him of the derogatory note in his visa records. That was the first time the senator learned why he was always being pulled out of the line for grilling.

This classification as a world-class terrorist (wow!) was later checked and confirmed by Senate protocol officer Ms. Carmen Arceño.

Senators have taken the floor to denounce the shabby treatment of a colleague and demanded that the notation in his US visa records be deleted. I doubt if the saliva sprinkled on the floor of the august chamber will suffice to wash away the record.

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GRINGOS on the watch list of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service are subjected to such fine-toothed screening at the border, if not outright rejection.

To get around this hospitality problem, the traveler on the INS list must get a waiver from the US embassy in his home city. We were told that Honasan has been given this waiver by the US embassy.

But his staff Peachy Urquiola said her boss has no such US waiver. She added that the senator is spared the embarrassing ordeal only if he requests to be fetched by Philippine embassy or consulate officers where he is going.

“But since the senator does not usually want to bother the said officers,” Urquiola said, “he is subjected to this embarrassment.”

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HONASAN has two passports, one regular and another diplomatic. His US visa, issued in 1995, is printed on his diplomatic passport that he got in the same year. (We used to have a rule that a Filipino may hold only one passport, but it seems that this has been relaxed.) In all his US trips since he became senator, Honasan has been using his diplomatic passport. Siyempre.

A diplomatic passport has to be revalidated by the Department of Foreign Affairs each time it is to be used. (The same revalidation requirement applies to official passports, which is issued to traveling government personnel). Honasan’s last revalidation was in June.

In contrast, a regular passport can be used repeatedly during its five-year life without the bearer having to go to the DFA for revalidation.

The Senate has a liaison office for passport processing, but reelectionist Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s recent lining up with the sweating crowd to renew his passport, instead of using the liaison office, was, huh, something else.

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HONASAN’S last visit to the US was upon the invitation of the Filipino community there. We do not know if he was then on a diplomatic mission for President Estrada.

The idea of issuing diplomatic passports and such travel documents to ambassadors and the like springs from the need for speedy, safe and unhampered travel for such envoys and emissaries as they run errands for the sovereign who had dispatched them.

A properly documented diplomat, a real one, is presumed to be on an important mission which cannot wait and which he need not explain to just anybody along the way.

The convention is to give the diplomat the full courtesy of the port, no questions asked. He is accorded diplomatic immunity.

Alas, we Filipinos have abused the issuance and use of diplomatic passports. Many unlikely characters carry them — to the prejudice of legitimate diplomats on important missions.

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TO maintain the credibility and guarantee the safety of diplomats, it is important that nobody trifles with protocol. It is expected that no sovereign will carelessly hand out diplomatic credentials like he were giving out movie passes.

Otherwise, the elaborate system of identification and protection of diplomats breaks down. Then, we start seeing some countries that put premium on honesty and national security taking a second look at alleged diplomats presenting alleged diplomatic passports.

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THE issue of separation of powers comes up. The President is the sole spokesman of the Republic in foreign relations. His job is distinct and separate from that of lawmakers who are elected to office simply to write laws.

In the performance of his foreign relations function, the President sends envoys and emissaries to foreign powers to speak and act on his behalf. He taps the DFA’s network of foreign missions.

A member of Congress cannot or should not perform an Executive function, in the same way that the President cannot dabble in lawmaking in the normal course of business.

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IT is bad form for somebody from co-equal and independent branches — such as the Supreme Court and the Congress — to perform executive functions or run, or pretend to run, errands abroad for the Chief Executive.

It is improper for a traveling senator or congressman to masquerade as a diplomat through the expedience of presenting a validated diplomatic passport at every port.

If a lawmaker has pretensions of being a diplomat, he should sit for the foreign service officer tests. But we have to give a friendly warning that aspirants must have clean fingernails and know how to read and write. The tests, by the way, are so tough that only about 15 out of every 1,000 applicants pass each time!

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HOW come many lawmakers carry diplomatic passports when by their job descriptions they are not diplomats being dispatched by the Chief Executive?

The answer is in a clause in Rep. Act 8239 that the imaginative gentlemen and ladies of Congress passed some four years ago as the Passports Act.

In this shameless piece of legislation, congressmen and senators made it law that they, all 250 of them, can be issued diplomatic passports (although they are not diplomats) upon certification of the respective heads of their chambers, namely the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.

This is just Congress. What about those other dubious characters who cannot even explain or spell “extraterritoriality” but who have been handed out sparkling diplomatic passports upon instructions of Malacañang?

Now can you blame Americans if they hardly have any respect for Philippine diplomatic passports?

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IF you think this is class legislation, it is. It is vintage Philippine Congress. There are so many such discriminatory laws, but nobody bothers to question them anymore.

For instance, there is a general rule that elective officials must resign when they run for an office other than the one they are occupying.

But under the same law, when congressmen and senators run for another office, they don’t have to quit like the rest. So when they lose, they simply go back to their seat in Congress. (It’s not even “going back,” because they never vacated it in the first place.)

Here’s another one: The Constitution mandates that political dynasties be banned. But since this would displease the political mafias in Congress, the legislature has steadfastly refused to pass the enabling law for the past dozen years.

This is not class legislation all right, but it is class refusal to legislate!

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NOW if our congressmen and senators, especially the new ones still awed by their exalted office, want a passport that sets them apart from the regular travelers, why not give them official passports?

Official passports, my barber says, are the correct type to issue to legislators — not diplomatic passports. While lawmakers are not diplomats, they are certainly officials. The red official passport looks important enough even for bloated super egos, di po ba?

Maybe our legislators should undergo mass therapy. A team of psychiatrists can patiently talk to them for days, or maybe hypnotize them for faster results, and tell them over and over that they are not diplomats, they are not diplomats, they are not…

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 6, 2000)

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