PH, US want VFA to work, not amend it
The Philippines and the United States are not amenable to renegotiating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Friday amid angry calls for the revision or abrogation of the bilateral deal following the killing of a transgender Filipino allegedly by a US Marine two weeks ago.
Del Rosario told a Senate hearing that both parties had been reviewing the VFA, including its touchy provisions for jurisdiction and custody, long before the gruesome killing of Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude on Oct. 11.
But the review did not reach the level of “negotiation,” Del Rosario said.
“I’m not sure the US would agree [to an amendment],” he said in reply to a question from Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the finance subcommittee conducting hearings on the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for 2015.
Del Rosario later told reporters that both parties were not amenable to renegotiating the 1999 agreement, and were more interested in making it work.
The VFA governs the conduct of US forces while visiting the Philippines for joint exercises with Filipino troops.
“We’re looking at the smooth implementation of the [agreement]. At this time, we’re not for renegotiation because if there is a material change, then we have to resubmit the whole thing … to the Senate,” he said.
‘As it is’
US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said the VFA should be applied “as it is” in the case of Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton of the US Marine Corps, the suspect in the killing of Laude.
Speaking to reporters as groups demanding justice for Laude picketed the US Embassy in Manila, Goldberg said revisiting the VFA “should not be done in the middle of something that we have to handle through the rule of law.”
Goldberg was reacting to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s statement on Thursday that the government was drafting implementation guidelines that would deal with ambiguities in the text of the VFA, such as custody of US servicemen involved in crimes in the Philippines.
US and Philippine foreign and military officials have been engaged in talks “over time” to clarify VFA provisions, Goldberg said.
He said any suggestions for clarification needed to be mutually agreed upon by the two countries so that these would “suit both our interests and objectives.”
“But I think we should separate that from the current situation. The current situation is that we have to apply VFA as it is and we have enough clarity in the step under VFA,” he said.
For instance, he said, custody of a suspect goes to the United States, while jurisdiction goes to the Philippines.
“We have to follow the VFA at the moment,” he said.
Rule of law to prevail
Goldberg gave assurance that both the United States and the Philippines would make sure the rule of law would prevail in Pemberton’s case.
He said the United States “went beyond” its obligations under the VFA by allowing Pemberton to be moved to “Philippine sovereign soil,” referring to the Marine’s transfer from his warship, the USS Peleliu, to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo on Wednesday.
“We also did it in a way sympathetic to public opinion here, that is sympathetic to the government and the judicial process here, assuring people here that the suspect will be here for the length of hearings, and possibly, if it comes to that, a trial,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg reiterated that Pemberton remained under US custody, and dismissed talks that the Marine was being accorded special treatment at the Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag) compound in Camp Aguinaldo, where he is held in a 28-cubic-meter freight container that has been converted into an air-conditioned detention cell.
Justice for Laude
“We are interested in justice for Jennifer Laude, for her family and her friends, and for the Filipino public. But we must also protect the rights of a suspect at this point,” Goldberg said.
Also “out of respect for the sentiments of Filipinos,” Goldberg said, the United States did not allow liberty time for the 5,500-strong crew of the USS George Washington, which made an overnight call in Manila on Thursday. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier left yesterday.
On calls for the abrogation of the VFA, Goldberg said the United States did not think the agreement should be scrapped, as it was important to the two countries’ mutual security as well as to conducting joint exercises.
Goldberg noted that President Aquino himself has said he is opposed to junking the VFA.
He said he did not want to get involved in a political debate on the abrogation of the VFA because “that’s your debate.”
In the Senate, Del Rosario said the DFA and US government officials had been reviewing the VFA “in its entirety” since last year, with a view to fine-tuning it.
“I think the level of consultation now is not negotiations. It’s a review by both parties,” he said when asked by Legarda if the agreement could be amended.
Del Rosario expressed doubt that the United States would agree to an amendment.
The review covered “sticking points” such as jurisdiction, custody and official duty, he told reporters later.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, civil society groups and transgender groups have called for the termination of the VFA because of its onerous provisions.
Santiago has argued that the provisions for jurisdiction and custody tend to favor the United States.
Del Rosario assured critics that Pemberton is not a flight risk, as the United States has vowed to cooperate with the Philippines to make the VFA work in the Marine’s case.
“You can be sure that he will not leave the country, and you can be [sure], the VFA … we intend to show the public that it works, and that justice will be served,” he told the subcommittee.
PH will seek custody
Del Rosario reiterated that the Philippine government will seek custody of Pemberton once the charges are filed and a warrant for his arrest is issued.
He explained that the government did not ask for custody after Laude’s killing because the United States had already taken custody of Pemberton.
“Technically speaking, we did not ask because the US already had custody of Pemberton. We also did not ask for custody at this particular time because he has not been charged,” he said.
Once charged, “we will formally ask, and we said to them already we would be asking,” he added.
Del Rosario made a distinction between jurisdiction and custody.
“Jurisdiction is proceeding with the legal process. Jurisdiction lies with the Philippines. And custody, everywhere you go, there is a difference in terms of how men in uniform are treated worldwide. Even in the Philippines, Philippine [soldiers] are treated differently. So custody is in accordance with the VFA. Legal custody remains with the United States,” he said.
Offshoot of Smith case
At the Department of Justice, De Lima told reporters that the review of the VFA for the preparation of implementation guidelines had been going on for a year.
She said talks started after the controversy involving custody of another US Marine, Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, who was convicted on charges of raping a Filipino woman in 2005 but was freed after the victim recanted her accusation.
“As an offshoot of that, we needed talks, further negotiations on the proper interpretation of those provisions under the VFA,” De Lima said.
“The VFA has been around for a long time, but there are no [implementation] guidelines. So [we need that] to be clear in the implementation. It’s just unfortunate that [this happened],” she said, referring to the killing of Laude.
De Lima declined to comment on calls for the abrogation of the VFA, saying decision on the matter belonged to higher authorities.
“What I’m only confirming right now is that [the Philippines and the United States] are talking about [implementation guidelines],” she said.
Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon said De Lima should recommend the termination of the VFA.
“The problem with drafting new [implementation] guidelines is that it gives Washington the opportunity to sneak in new provisions and interpretations that are favorable [to] them,” Ridon said in a statement.
“What’s more dangerous in Secretary De Lima’s proposal is that it opens an opportunity for the US to further undermine our sovereignty through the expansion of VFA coverage,” he said.
‘One-sided love affair’
In a separate statement, Valenzuela Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian said the VFA is a “one-sided love affair” between the Philippines, which ratified it, and the United States, which did not.
“It’s like an American national promising to marry his Filipin[o] girlfriend on condition that the [girlfriend] help pay his debts in the US. And after everything has been settled, the American will tell his Filipin[o] bride to forget about the wedding and they just live together as common-law spouses,” he said.
“This is clearly a one-sided love affair since the [Filipino woman] is willing to do everything to show her love, while her American boyfriend takes everything for granted,” Gatchalian said. With reports from Tarra Quismundo and DJ Yap
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