After Duterte threat, Philippines now working on VFA termination – Palace

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 24)— The Philippine government is now working on the process of terminating its Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States—a day after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to scrap the 1998 deal over the cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa’s visa

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Duterte already gave the order Thursday night— despite previously setting a one-month deadline for the US government to reverse its decision on the senator’s visa.

Eh apparently hindi na nasunod kasi tinanong ko siya (Duterte) kagabi eh, "When will the process start?" "Tonight,” Panelo told reporters in a chance interview in Malacañang on Friday.

[Translation: Apparently it was not followed because I asked him last night, “When will the process start?” “Tonight.”]

“The process of starting it has commenced or will commence today,” Panelo said, noting he has already relayed the order to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr.

Locsin, for his part, said he has already called Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for them to start the termination process.

“Called Sec Lorenzana as Vice Chair—I am Chair of VFA—to start process of terminating USVFA. Step 1 calling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because on our side it is a treaty; on US side Executive Agreement,” the country’s top diplomat said in a tweet.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea is also set to meet with US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim to discuss the latest developments on this issue, Panelo added.

The 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.

Among the provisions of the deal include lax visa and passport policies for US troops, and rights of US government to retain jurisdiction over military personnel, among others.

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. Expiration, however, will come 180 days from the time either party notifies each other.

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.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the department has now been tasked to study the "proper procedure" of the deal's termination process.

No Congress approval needed

On the other hand, Lorenzana said the termination of the VFA does not need the approval of the Congress. Hence, the government may unilaterally initiate the termination.

"The termination of the VFA may be unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, and it is well within the right of the Philippine government to do so if it determines that the agreement no longer redounds to our national interest," said Lorenzana in a latest statement.

"Such a termination does not need the approval of the Philippine Congress. All that is required is that a notice of termination be served to the US government."

Lorenzana earlier said that authorities are just waiting for the next move of the US.

“The ball is in the US hand. Let’s see how they react to (Duterte’s) statement ,” Lorenzana said in a message to reporters.

He also said he “understands” why the President was displeased with Washington’s move to cancel Dela Rosa's visa.

He said the chief executive was only being “true to his promise” of supporting those who helped launch the administration’s flagship anti-illegal drugs campaign.

“It is a direct affront to (Duterte) being the architect of the drug war that he started upon his assumption of office,” the Defense Secretary said.

“He ordered Bato, then the newly installed Chief PNP (Philippine National Police), to launch the drug war and enjoined the entire PNP to do their duties and pledged to would back them up. That he would take responsibility for their official actions. That he would go to prison for them.”

'Not my fault'

Dela Rosa meanwhile hit back at critics and netizens who blamed him for the President's ultimatum.

"Kasalanan ko ba 'yun? Bakit nila ako sisisihin? Di ko kasalanan 'yun. It's purely an executive decision na ginagawa ng Pangulo," Dela Rosa said in a media briefing, debunking claims he asked for Duterte's help.

[Translation: Is it my fault? Why would they blame me? It's not my fault. It's purely an executive decision made by the President.]

Duterte’s warning also drew mixed reactions from fellow government officials and lawmakers.

Locsin, in an earlier tweet, said he found the President’s statement as a “good move.”

Senator Kiko Pangilinan, on the other hand, said it would be better for the executive branch to focus on more pressing issues—particularly the relief efforts for those affected by the Taal Volcano eruption as well as monitoring the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China.

CNN Philippines’ Alyssa Rola, Eimor Santos, and Xave Gregorio contributed to this report.