VFA: The devil in the unstated

The Visiting Forces Agreement or VFA is nothing more than a litany of the norms we must observe when American military forces come to visit our country.  The VFA presumes that these visits will bring mutual benefits to both our countries.  It does not specify what these benefits are, or what is to be gained for the Philippines by hosting these same forces we said goodbye to in 1992.

Under the agreement, we are to facilitate their entry into every nook and corner of our country without asking for a passport or a visa.  We are to allow them duty-free importation of the things they need while they are here.  We may request an inspection of their vessels, but only for quarantine purposes, and only under the supervision of an American commander.  We may not ask if they are carrying nuclear weapons explicitly banned by our Constitution.

If anyone of these special US visitors commits an offense on Philippine territory, he may only be tried by an American court if he was on duty at the time of the offense.  Regardless of the nature and circumstances of the offense, he may be placed under the custody only of US authorities.  Moreover, even in those cases where Philippine courts have clear primary jurisdiction, if there is a request for a waiver of Philippine jurisdiction, we are, under this VFA, duty bound to grant that request.

These were the same guidelines that were contained in the status of forces provisions of the Military Bases Agreement.  When that agreement expired in 1991, and a new treaty was rejected by the Philippine Senate, the legal framework under which visiting US forces were to be treated became uncertain.  But, unknown to many Filipinos, the visits and joint exercises continued even after the closure of the American facilities.  They were justified under the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, which remained in force after the expiration of the bases treaty.

The privileges and legal protection extended to visiting US forces after  1992 were contained in a little known agreement called the RP-US Administrative and Technical Personnel Arrangement.  This document did not pass through the Senate.   Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon Jr. says that this interim arrangement, forged during the time of his predecessor, covered only very small groups of US soldiers visiting in connection with specific exercises.  The recent “live-fire” joint exercise by RP and US forces off the disputed Scarborough Shoal, part of a series begun early this year, is an example of such limited visits, says Siazon.

For expanded military exercises, however, where US troops are bound to interact with Filipino communities in the course of their stay, Sec. Siazon says that the interim administrative and technical status conferred on visiting troops is inadequate.  The situation calls for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) or, as it is better known, a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The draft VFA, signed by Sec. Siazon and US Amb. Thomas Hubbard, anchors itself on the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. Although there is nothing in that treaty that explicitly mentions joint military exercises, the VFA seeks to derive its mandate from this bilateral defense arrangement. President Estrada himself has been explicit about this tie-up between the VFA and the country’s security needs.

If the defense of the Philippines were the only reason for having the VFA, I do not think the Senate would ratify it.  Neither of the two former professional soldiers in the Senate today – Biazon and Honasan – believes the Philippines faces any immediate external threat.  Senator Biazon argues that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty is a relic of the Cold War, and that its premises must be reexamined in the light of geo-political changes since 1989.

Both senators, appearing recently on Public Life, deny that any meaningful transfer of knowledge or expertise from the US to the Philippines takes place during these exercises.  If there is any transfer at all, says Honasan, it may be in the area of military combat under tropical conditions, but here the beneficiaries would clearly be the American side.   At best, what the Philippine side learns, they say, is the use of the latest weaponry and equipment, which, in any event, we do not have.  The main purpose of the joint exercises, Biazon claims, is the achievement of “inter-operability”, the capacity to synchronize the operations of the two forces under simulated war conditions.

There is nothing in the VFA that even faintly suggests that joint military exercises will pave the way to the modernization of our armed forces. Neither is there any hint — beyond the vague and obsolete formulations of the Mutual Defense Treaty — of a readiness by the US to come to the rescue of the Philippines if a war over the Spratlys should break out.

The VFA is unequivocally a one-sided treaty.  What is surprising and alarming is that our highest officials should feel compelled to take it seriously and even possibly ratify it.  President Erap, uncharacteristically echoing the doomsday scenarios of the other side in the bases debate, warns against the dire economic consequences of a VFA rejection.  Senators Biazon and Honasan, who could see nothing of much value for the Philippines in the agreement, are willing to be persuaded that there may be something here for the national interest.  The old fear of not wanting to displease America still grips us.  The old hope of getting something in return for our subservience still drives us.  Amazing.

The devil may not be in the details, after all; it lurks in the unstated.


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