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7 senators reject VFA with Australia

MANILA, Philippines – Seven senators, just one vote shy of what’s needed to torpedo the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and Australia, voted to reject treaty ratification on Wednesday as Congress prepared to adjourn sine die until July 23, when another round of voting is scheduled.

Senator Joker Arroyo led six of his peers in rejecting ratification of the VFA, citing Australia’s disregard for Philippine interest in several matters, notably  for continuously banning the country’s fruit exports.

“The Senate cannot simply concur in treaties if other contracting countries have no consideration of the country’s interest,” Arroyo said in his interpellation.

The Senate approved the treaty on second reading with 7 negative votes and 14 affirmative votes.

According to Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, the third reading of SRN 788 will be done when session resumes on July 23.

Under the Constitution, the Senate has the sole power to ratify any treaty or international agreement entered into by the Executive Department and a 2/3 vote of the present members of the Upper Chamber is needed to adopt it.

“Like the impeachment trial, the treaty needs 2/3 votes of the members of the Senate. As seven senators voted against the agreement at this stage, it only needs one more vote to finally reject the treaty,” Arroyo said in an interview after the voting.

The senator recalled that when he entered the Senate in 2001, one of the first matters taken up was the issue of Manila’s mango exports to Australia. “During that time, Philippine mangoes were banned and Sen. (Edgardo) Angara was fuming mad because with his experience in agriculture, he knew that the country’s mangoes were accepted in the US, Japan and other advanced countries.

“Today when I asked Senator Angara about the problem, he replied that Australia has not only banned mangoes but also bananas and pineapples, and that the country’s balance of trade with Australia was P500 million in imports and only P50 million in exports, meaning, it is lopsided,” he argued.

Aside from Arroyo, Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Sergio Osmena III, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Aquilino Pimentel III, Manuel Villar and Ralph Recto opposed the measure.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, together with Senators Loren Legarda, Jinggoy Estrada, Franklin Drilon, Vicente Sotto III, Pia Cayetano, Bong Revilla, Teofisto “TG” Guingona III, Antonio Trillanes IV, Edgardo Angara,  Kiko Pangilinan, Panfilo Lacson and Gregorio Honasan voted to approve the measure on second reading.

Senator Kiko Pangilinan, meanwhile, reserved the right to explain his vote once the resolution is taken up on third reading. 

Santiago pointed out a part of the Agreement which says that the visiting forces may temporarily use land, sea and air space or other facilities of the receiving state for training, exercises or other activities mutually approved by both countries, but noted that there is no clear constitutional basis for the country’s military forces to be trained by a visiting force.

“Proponents of the Agreement between the Philippines and Australia have not made clear what the constitutional basis is for the Philippines to allow our military forces to be trained by a visiting force in our own territory,” Santiago said, and warned that concurrence of the Philippines “may threaten the sovereignty of the country.”

Explicit terms on environment

The Agreement, which was ratified by President Benigno Aquino III on December 23, 2010, called for the issuance of a Memorandum Order (MO) directing the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to closely monitor the activities of the Australian Visiting Forces and its Civilian Component in the Philippines, and ensure that these activities do not violate any of the environmental laws and ordinances of the country.   

“The Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with Australia sets a precedent in defense agreements in that it has unique provisions on environmental protection. The Agreement explicitly prohibits the conduct of exercises or other activities in protected areas, ancestral domain areas, critical watersheds and protected forest areas,” Senator Loren Legarda, sponsor of the resolution and chair of the Senate Committees on Foreign Relations and Climate Change, said.

“It also provides that any environmental damage will be subjected to claims and compensation and that the sending state will be responsible for the rehabilitation of damaged areas,” Legarda added.

“The Agreement will enforce the duties and obligations of both parties with respect to environmental protection, including the clean-up and restoration of any local site or body of water that may be affected by the activities allowed for under the Agreement,” she added.

The Agreement also calls for the Service Authorities of Australia to cooperate with the Philippine government to prevent any abuse or misuse of the privileges granted in favor of Australian Visiting Forces and its Civilian Component, and to ensure that proper discharge of the obligations imposed on the visiting party are met.

The Agreement addresses the sensitive issue of criminal jurisdiction “through a clear set of rules,” and that the “authorities of the receiving state have jurisdiction over visiting forces with respect to offenses committed within the receiving state and punishable by the law of the receiving state, but not by the law of the sending state.”

“With respect to criminal jurisdiction, it is provided in the Philippine-Australian VFA that the receiving state shall exercise primary jurisdiction over all offenses except for offenses relating to the property and security of the sending state, and offenses performed in official duty. Thus, as a general rule, offenses shall be under the primary jurisdiction of the receiving state. We believe that these are but reasonable rights afforded to the sending state,” Legarda added.

Respect for the other's laws

According to Legarda, there is also emphasis made in the SOVFA regarding the principle of respect for the laws of the receiving state.  

“No offender from the visiting forces who commits a crime in the Philippines will escape justice under the SOVFA,” Legarda stressed.

The resolution also states that the Agreement must provide for a comprehensive legal framework that will govern the status of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Australian Defense Forces personnel who will participate in education, training, combined exercises and humanitarian activities in each others territories.

The Agreement, which provides for enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation between the two countries through the exchange of visits, was anchored on the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperative Defense Activities with Australia through exchange of visits.

Since 2001, Australia has extended defense assistance to the Philippines totalling an estimated P1.16 billion.

This includes, among others, military education and training of an average of 120 AFP officers annually in Australia, costing an average of US$ 26.751 million per year;  contribution of US$ 17.834 million worth of riverine boats as part of the efforts to upgrade counter-terrorism and maritime security capabilities; supporting the implementation of the Coast Watch System to strengthen the country’s capability in addressing maritime security challenges; and conducting counter-terrorism trainings and mutual training assistance to help develop inter-operability between the special operations units of the armies and navies of the Philippines and Australia.



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