Duterte threatens to terminate VFA if US does not reverse cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 23) — President Rodrigo Duterte threatened Thursday night that he will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States if Washington does not reverse its cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s visa.

Duterte said in a speech before former communist rebels that he is giving the US government a month to “correct” the cancellation of Dela Rosa’s visa.

“No more bases. They have to start to talk to us because they have to go," Duterte said. "Kahiyaan 'yan sa militar. Biro mo, isang sundalo nagtatrabaho lang tapos ganunin nila. I am putting them to humiliation itong mga pulis, mga sundalo."

[Translation: That's an embarassment for the military. Imagine, one soldier is just working and then they'll do that to him? I am putting policemen and soldiers to humiliation.]

Dela Rosa responded to the President's statement in a message Thursday, saying the issue wasn't just about him but of "one-sided foreign relations."

"OK lang mga sundalo nila labas-pasok sa ating teritoryo while a senator of this Republic is barred from entering their territory due to their intentions of tinkering with our domestic affairs," he said.

[Translation: It's fine for their (US) soldiers to come in and out of our territory, while a senator of this Republic is barred from entering theor territory due to their intentions of tinkering with our domestic affairs."

For his part, Senate President Tito Sotto said perhaps the President's statement could "make the US Senate rethink their wrong perception about our Justice System. He is the President, the buck stops with him."

Dela Rosa said he would support the termination of the VFA should his visa not be restored.

Senator Ping Lacson, meanwhile said in a tweet, "A US visa is a conditional authorization granted to a foreigner. It may be cancelled without explanation or justification. The VFA is a bilateral agreement between the Ph and the US that went through some careful and diplomatic discussion. Pray tell, where is the connection?"

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he would have to study the matter first before talking to Duterte.

Duterte also said he would be prohibiting from entering into the Philippines all US lawmakers who voted in favor of a Senate committee report which seeks to ban foreign officials involved in the "wrongful imprisonment" of opposition Senator Leila De Lima.

The proposed ban ended up getting included in the final version of the US 2020 budget law by way of a reference to the committee report. President Donald Trump approved the law.

What is the VFA?

The 1998 VFA is the first of two agreements between Washington and Manila about the treatment of their troops when they are in the US or the Philippines.

Under the agreement, US troops are not subject to passport and visa regulations when entering and leaving the Philippines. Their US driving permits and licenses are also considered to be valid in the Philippines.

The US also has the right to retain its jurisdiction over its military personnel when they commit crimes in the Philippines, unless they committed a crime which is punishable in the Philippines but not in US or a crime which is related to the security of the Philippines.

The US also keeps jurisdiction over its military personnel in the event of a criminal prosecution, unless the Philippines convinces it to turn over its personnel. The US will make its personnel available for all investigative and judicial proceedings for just one year, after which the US is no longer obliged to do this.

The VFA can be terminated by either the Philippines or the US by writing to the other party that they want to end the agreement.

Whether the Senate needs to concur with the termination of the treaty is still unclear, as the Constitution only says the upper chamber's nod is needed for a treaty to come into force. This same question is the subject of petitions before the Supreme Court assailing Duterte's withdrawal of the Philippines from the International Criminal Court.

The country has had a bitter history with the VFA, as it has been used by the US to keep jurisdiction over its military personnel during criminal prosecution. This has led to calls for the repeal of the VFA.

What about Bato?

Dela Rosa confirmed Wednesday that he is no longer allowed to travel to the US for now since his visa has been cancelled. He told Senate reporters that the US Embassy told him on January 20, a day before his birthday, that his visa had been invalidated.

Details surrounding the revocation – including when it became effective and why it was implemented – remain unclear to Dela Rosa.

But he acknowledged it "might be related" to alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) from 2016 to 2018.

Reports in December 2019 said the US canceled Dela Rosa's visa in line with the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, an American law passed in 2018 that imposes financial penalties and visa ban sanctions on foreign individuals and entities involved in violations of human rights or religious freedoms, and censorship activities.

This measure specifically states that no fund should be given as counternarcotics assistance for the PNP unless the Secretary of State reports to the US Congress that the Philippine government has adopted an anti-drug campaign that is consistent with international human rights standards. Among the actions being asked of the Philippine government is the prosecution of individuals involved in alleged extrajudicial killings.

Dela Rosa is certain the travel restrictions against him are not related to the ban on Philippine government officials behind the highly contested detention of Senator Leila de Lima. He said the cancellation of his visa most likely happened before the ban was approved along with the entire 2020 budget of the US on December 20, 2019. Reports on Dela Rosa's voided visa surfaced earlier that month.

Dela Rosa on December 14 last year admitted to CNN Philippines he had been avoiding visiting the US for fear of being denied entry, causing him to miss his colleague and boxing legend Manny Pacquiao's win against Keith Thurman, Jr. in Las Vegas, Nevada, in July.