POSTSCRIPT / January 26, 2020 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Trump to choose: Bato or De Lima?

THE DEBATE over President Duterte’s attending the US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas in March and the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States appears to have been reduced to personal issues involving senators Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Leila de Lima.

President Trump is being pressured by his Manila counterpart to restore the US visa of Dela Rosa, former national police chief, that was cancelled presumably because of his key role in Duterte’s war on illegal drugs.

Duterte gave the US a one-month deadline to re-issue Dela Rosa’s visa otherwise he will not consider joining nine other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in their summit with Trump on March 14.

He added pressure by simultaneously initiating the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement that laid down the procedures for resolving criminal and related cases that their military personnel may face while in the other country.

Facing an impeachment trial and a reelection test this year, Trump is being asked to carry out a US Senate resolution barring Philippine officials (that could include Duterte and Dela Rosa) who allegedly had a hand in the prosecution of De Lima on drug-related charges.

US Senate Resolution 142, authored by US Sen. Edward Markey, called on Trump to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on Philippine officials implicated in human rights violations.

Trump could take his time resolving Dela Rosa’s visa problem since the ban on De Lima’s alleged tormentors that was inserted in the 2020 federal budget merely allows – not requires — him to bar their entry.

As Duterte is being pilloried for making the former PNP chief’s visa cancellation a determinant of whether or not to attend the summit and/or terminate the VFA, a similar observation could be made of De Lima’s case being used by critics to pressure Trump to come to her rescue.

Duterte insists that she had abused her position as justice secretary in the previous administration to run a drug trafficking operation in the National Bilibid Prisons. US senators supporting her had demanded that she be freed or her trial sped up.

The invitation to the ASEAN summit in Las Vegas is not special to Duterte. It is but a reiteration of a call to the group’s 10 leaders first made in November in Bangkok last year after Trump skipped two successive summits after Manila’s 2017.

The meeting in Las Vegas is a not the same as a singular invitation to the White House that most Philippine presidents dream of.

Does Trump have to throw in something special to convince Duterte to settle for Las Vegas? Battling his own impeachment trial in the middle of his reelection campaign, the Republican bet has to be careful about being identified with somebody whose image is not exactly impeccable.

 Personal concerns color PH-US issues

IT IS disturbing that major bilateral issues such as the termination of a security-related agreement could hinge on personal problems of politicians who are being used with their consent as pawns.

President Duterte threatened on Thursday to terminate the VFA if the US did not “correct” its cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa. (The US embassy has not given the reason for voiding it. The senator said he was merely advised to apply for a new visa if he needed it.)

In a speech in Leyte, Duterte said: “I’m warning you. This is the first time. Kapag hindi ninyo ginawa ang correction diyan (If you do not correct that one), I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement. Tapusin ko ‘yan pu**** in*** yan.” He gave the US one month to do it.

Duterte seems to imply he can terminate it on his own without the concurrence of the Senate – like he did with the Rome Statute, the treaty that had set up the International Criminal Court looking into extrajudicial killings as crimes against humanity.

While the VFA was concurred in by the Senate, as treaties should be under the 1987 Constitution, it is categorized by the US as only an executive agreement, a notch somewhat lower than a treaty. The imbalance could cause some problems.

The VFA will not expire one month after Duterte says so. Its Article IX on duration and termination says: “This agreement shall remain in force until the expiration of 180 days from the date on which either party gives the other party notice in writing that it desires to terminate the agreement.”

It is not generally known that there are two VFAs, one pertaining to US military personnel on duty in the Philippines and a twin “VFA-2” covering Philippine military personnel in the US under similar conditions in the spirit of reciprocity.

Duterte may want to clarify if he also had in mind abrogating VFA-2 when he threatened to terminate the VFA.

Article IV of VFA-2 signed on Oct. 9, 1998, or seven months after VFA-1, commits the US embassy in Manila to issue multiple-entry visas to Philippine military personnel traveling on official duty in the US. Does Duterte want this assurance taken out?

Dela Rosa does not qualify for a visa under VFA-2 since he is not a military officer on official mission in the US. Besides, he is now a senator, no longer a (police) general.

His being singled out protectively by the President dramatizes the Commander-in-Chief’s repeated assurance of “sagot kita” (you have my back) to “his” soldiers and policemen who follow his orders.

To what extent will Duterte stick to this personal guarantee of protection will be interesting to follow in specific high-profile cases in the uniformed service.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 26, 2020)

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