US and Philippine troops at a joint exercise event in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Just days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to terminate a key defense agreement with the Unites States, prominent statesmen, political allies and legal experts are all challenging the move.

The Filipino leader raised the possibility of nixing the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US in response to the imposition of a reported travel ban against his former police chief Bato Dela Rosa, who oversaw Duterte’s controversial drug war and is now a senator.

Duterte upped the ante on January 29 by ordering his Cabinet secretaries and senior officials to “boycott” the US, an effective travel ban that would inevitably cripple one of Asia’s oldest alliances underwritten by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

“I will not allow any Cabinet member to go there at this time,” Duterte announced on the sidelines of the founding anniversary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

The order will remain in place “indefinitely,” the president said, while he implements a “toning down” of relations with Washington.

Duterte also confirmed that he declined a White House invitation to attend the US-Association of Southeast Asian Leaders Summit to be held in Las Vegas on March 4 for “strategic, geopolitical considerations.” No top Philippine official is expected to attend the event, Duterte added.

US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN Summit in Manila, November 2017. Photo: Twitter

If fully implemented, it would prevent the Philippines’ defense, finance and foreign secretaries from visiting Washington as well as the United Nations in New York.

Abrogation of the VFA, which facilitates the rotational stationing of US troops on Philippine soil, would jeopardize hundreds of annual joint exercises and activities staged by the two treaty allies’ militaries.

A complementary accord, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), is likewise in jeopardy. The EDCA was enacted in 2014 and provided American forces with wider than previous access to Philippine military facilities and allows them to build structures and preposition defense equipment in the country.

In response, key military officials, former senior diplomats as well as top legislators have spoken out against a threat they see as inimical to the Philippines’ broad national interests and to the benefit of rising rival China.

Dela Rosa is not alone in being banned from the US. Other senior Philippine officials accused of involvement in extrajudicial killings and human rights violations face similar US sanctions.

Under the Global Magnitsky mechanism, the US and other major Western countries could be poised to impose other forms of sanctions including asset freezes against top Philippine officials found to be involved in human rights violations.

“Any state can punish or prosecute against violators of the most grievous human rights anywhere in the world. And this is not new,” said Chito Gascon, chairman of the Commission of Human Rights (CHR), an independent constitutional office, in an interview with the author.

A boy walks past pictures of victims of drug war killings at a vigil in Quezon City, December 1, 2017. Photo: Ezra Acayan/AFP Forum via NurPhoto

Amid an ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) preliminary examination of alleged crimes against humanity committed in Duterte’s drug war, Gascon warned that top Filipino officials could eventually face ICC prosecution.

“[I]f we show by our own actions or by our words that we are actually enabling and we’re not really holding anyone to account, then other states will say this is a core universal principle,” the commission chief added.

External powers can step in, Gascon explains, because “human rights is not within the exclusive jurisdiction [of the Philippines]…it is a universal standard,” unless the Duterte administration assures that the Philippines will “adhere to international human rights and we will do something about it.”

Analysts believe the Philippine president is thus deeply worried about the prospect of a widening net of international sanctions imposed against his inner circle, if not himself, in the coming years.

Rather than addressing criticism about a lack of accountability for thousands of suspected extrajudicial killings, as well as persecution of critical opposition leaders such as Senator Leila De Lima, Duterte has threatened instead to sever ties with the US.

On January 29, the Philippine leader reiterated that his threat to nix the VFA was serious and not a bluff. “I am terminating [VFA]. I was not joking the day I said it. [It] was the day I decided it will be terminated.”

“They say [the decision is] subject to my whim capricious,” the president acknowledged. “[But] it started when they mentioned the US resolution in the US Senate” imposing travel bans and sanctions against top Filipino officials late last year.

A US Navy member (left) gives instructions to his Philippine counterpart during drills at Sangley Point, Cavite City, west of Manila. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

In response, Duterte explained, he began “trying to figure out who would be barred from entering (the US). Even then, my mind was working. I’m like that. I just announced late [my retaliation].”

The move faces growing domestic opposition. Key Duterte allies such as Senators Richard Gordon and Koko Pimental have called for a discussion of the matter to ensure the country’s national interests, rather than that of the president’s inner circle, are the paramount consideration.

“At the very least, it will help the people understand the importance of what the government is doing, what are the security implications of such [a] move,” Gordon said while calling for a public hearing on the matter.

“Would this mean we are truly pivoting to China? That’s what the others are saying. But I don’t think so. I think we should adopt a neutral stand but we should be able to study this carefully and not just follow whatever they say.

“The Senate must assert itself as the third branch of government involved in treaty making. Remember this is the only thing that the Senate is involved [with, the rest Congress is involved.”

“My appeal is for us to be more careful and discerning because if we have the power to abrogate a treaty, the other party also has that (authority),” warned Pimentel, who heads the Senate’s foreign affairs committee.

“Remember that we still have other treaties with the US. If they feel insulted by our sudden termination of the VFA, the US may withdraw from all other treaties with us. We might be surprised,” he added.

US and Philippine Marines at annual joint Amphibious Landing Exercises at the former US naval base of Subic. Photo: AFP/Jay Directo

Senior opposition senator Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, claimed that Duterte cannot unilaterally scrap the agreement, saying any such executive move to scrap international agreements requires the Senate’s concurrence.

Cagayan de Oro Second District Representative Rufus Rodriguez, a leading voice on defense issues, warned that the VFA termination “will be inimical to our national interest and security.”

Former Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia Jr warned that the VFA is crucial to counterterrorism efforts, especially in the wake of the 2017 siege of Marawi by Islamic State-backed rebels, and that China will be the main beneficiary of any scrapping of the VFA.

“The military exercises, those are going to be completely gone. So who will benefit? Of course, China. Who will suffer? The Philippine military. But the Philippine military will not dare say that,” Cuisia said.

Despite Duterte’s threats, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reiterated its commitment to the US alliance.

“We will continue to engage our closest allies in terms of training, in terms of capability upgrade. The US is helping us,” said Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad. “We will continue to engage. We will continue to exercise with them,” he said, with not a small hint of defiance.

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