Panelo: US should explain why Dela Rosa's visa was canceled

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The United States should explain why it revoked Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa's visa, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo says.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 27) — The United States should have the courtesy to explain why it revoked Senator Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa's visa, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Monday.

"Not that we are requiring the US to tell us the reason for the barring as well as Sen. Bato's visa being cancelled. But we feel that as a matter of courtesy between countries who are allied, it should have given the reasons," Panelo said during a press briefing in Malacañang.

"After all, we stated the reasons why we are refusing entry to three US senators in this country," he added, referring to a travel ban on American Senators Richard "Dick" Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Edward Markey from entering the Philippines.

The three led calls to release Senator Leila De Lima a staunch critic of Duterte, who has been in jail since February 2017 for drug-related charges.

Dela Rosa confirmed last week that his tourist visa to the United States has been revoked, weeks after initial reports claiming that he would not be allowed to set foot in the North American country. President Rodrigo Duterte responded with a surprise decision to terminate the long-standing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and Philippine military, giving local officials a month to carry out the process.

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

Dela Rosa earlier acknowledged that his canceled visa "might be related" to alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018 better known as Oplan Tokhang, the bloody anti-drug operations carried out by the police. The US Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in 2018, which imposes financial penalties and visa ban sanctions on foreign individuals and entities involved in violations of human rights or religious freedoms, and censorship activities.

READ: Another police general's US visa canceled, Dela Rosa says

'Last straw'

The Palace official denied claims that canceling the VFA was an impulsive move against the US.

"The cancellation of Sen. Bato's visa was the last straw that broke the camel's back. It was an accumulation, a series of disrespectful acts by some of the US senators for demanding the release of a senator who is 'lawfully detained.' To the President's mind, that is an intrusion and an insult to the judiciary system of this country," Panelo said.

Panelo added that he does not know what else can change the President's mind to keep the VFA,

Prior to Dela Rosa's cancelled visa, Panelo said the passage of a US Senate resolution condemning supposed human rights violations in the Philippines, the provision in the US federal budget law that bars the entry of certain local officials said to be involved in De Lima's detention, and calls to set her free have piled up.

"It's not as expressed by some as a decision on a whim. It's a studied response to acts that the President deems to be an assault to the sovereignty of this country," Panelo said, dubbing Duterte as a "tactical and thinking President."

Panelo, who is also the President's chief legal counsel, added that Duterte can terminate the VFA without concurrence of the Senate, saying that it is considered an executive agreement rather than a treaty.

The withdrawal process started on Friday, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin, Jr. saying that he would call the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to relay the message.

The VFA, which took effect in 1999, provides the legal cover for American troops to hold joint exercises in the country with their Filipino counterparts after the expiration in 1991 of the decades-long military basing agreement between the two allies. The 1987 constitution prohibits foreign troops and facilities in the Philippines except under a treaty concurred in by the Senate.

The VFA is also the first of two agreements between Washington and Manila about the treatment of their troops when they are in the US or the Philippines. Its provisions include lax visa and passport policies for American troops, and the right of the US government to retain jurisdiction over its military personnel, with some exceptions.

The agreement can be terminated by either the Philippines or the US by writing to the other party that they want to end it. Expiration, however, will come 180 days from the time either party notifies each other. Aside from Panelo, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also believes that the VFA can be terminated without the approval of the Senate. However, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said last week that these legal questions are still being studied.

Not worried

Panelo said there's nothing to worry about even if the US decides to end other agreements on security cooperation with Manila.

"I think treaties benefit more the United States than the Philippines. Strategically, the US needs to be in almost any part of the world to secure itself from its perceived enemies," he added.

He said the VFA was lopsided anyway, as it grants unrestricted passage for all American aircraft and vessels in the Philippines and provides special arrangements for American troops involved in crimes committed here — privileges not extended to Filipinos.

The Philippines and the US are longstanding allies under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The VFA and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014, which allows US forces extended stay and to maintain facilities within Philippine camps, are designed to bolster that alliance.

Panelo also shot down the suggestion of former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario for Duterte to fly to Washington and join fellow Southeast Asian leaders in meeting President Donald Trump and iron out bilateral relations, saying the President doesn't take advice from people who "lost the West Philippine Sea to the Chinese government."

On Sunday, Del Rosario said there were a number of reasons to revisit rather than end the VFA, adding that the Philippines would need help in tackling external threats as well as "more devastating" natural disasters.

Del Rosario was part of a special delegation that filed a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The international court dismissed China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea and declared portions claimed by Beijing as within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.