Posts Tagged ‘visiting forces agreement’


Why is the Philippine government not doing anything about the permanently stationed US  Special Forces in Mindanao?

The permanent presence, which is nearing its 10th year now, dates back from the time the US launched its borderless “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, which is also marking its 10th anniversary this year. The “war on terror” resulted in direct US military aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq and saw US forces conducting operations in Pakistan. Other “secret wars” were launched worldwide in the name of fighting terrorism.

In 2002, the Philippines was tagged by the US as the “second front” in the “war on terror”, and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines was launched against the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya purportedly training in Mindanao. For the first time, US forces were deployed in actual combat areas in Mindanao under the guise of training exercises called Balikatan 02-1. US forces have not left Southern Philippines since. A permanent structure has been set-up inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga which hosts a rotating force of about 600 personnel of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, under the US Joint Special Operations Command.

It is incomprehensible why the Philippine government has not questioned the permanent basing of US troops in Mindanao, since this already goes against the definition of ‘visiting forces’ as contemplated by the Visiting Forces Agreement. The decision to maintain the US Special Forces in Mindanao was a unilateral move by the US government during the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. However, the Aquino administration apparently does not mind the continuing violation of the country’s sovereignty under this arrangement.

Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no time-table for the pull-out of US troops in Mindanao. There are no clear parameters on how they will consider their mission ‘accomplished’. Clearly, the US government is circumventing a constitutional prohibition on US bases. The Philippine Constitution is clear, no foreign military bases absent a treaty ratified by both governments. With the virtual basing of US troops in Mindanao, the Philippine government is allowing itself to be hoodwinked by Washington. The Philippine government is allowing itself to be used in advancing this 10-year borderless war on terror that has claimed more lives worldwide than the original victims of 9-11.

Exactly two years ago, the New York Times reported that then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to “keep an elite 600-troop counterinsurgency operation deployed in the Philippines despite pressure to reassign its members elsewhere”.

The NY Times article tells us that the decision for US Special Forces to stay in Mindanao was a unilateral decision made by the US government. It is an imposition by a super power on a puppet state. It is not a sign of enduring friendship. It is a sign that the US is trying to one-up the Philippines every chance it gets. It shows how the US government regards us a nation.

It is time to ask what the Department of Foreign Affairs is doing.  What is the Presidential Commission on the VFA doing? What is the Joint Congressional Oversight of the VFA doing? None of them appear to be even remotely concerned about this violation of our country’s sovereignty. Is it because were so desperate to get US support for our claims in the Spratlys? Is it because our government is so dependent on US economic and military aid that it is prepared to look the other way when sovereignty is assaulted?

The NY Times article described the Special Operations Forces as “the most highly skilled in the military at capture-and-kill missions against insurgent and terrorist leaders. Within their ranks, Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, have for decades been training (US) allied troops on their home soil and conducting counterinsurgency missions.

Meanwhile, analyst Nick Terse in an article describes the JSOC as a power-elite even in Washington. “In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans.”

Analysts have also estimated that funding for these units have tripled in the aftermath of 9-11, from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion in 2011, not counting appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Philippines, Terse says that the US government spends some $50 million a year to maintain the 600-man Special Forces unit.  The Obama administration has given the JSOC a more prominent role in US combat operations abroad.

After ‘concluding’ Balikatan 02-1 in 2002, the US government again unilaterally announced that troops will be staying behind for so-called “Civil Military Operations” and to continue training local troops. The US forces have not left since then. They have also established temporary faculties in other parts of Mindanao. January 2012 will mark a decade of US permanent basing in Mindanao, and there seems to be no end in sight for their deployment in this part of the world, not if Obama can help it.

Front page photo of the Philippine Star....duh

It is ironic that while the nation will be observing the 20th anniversary of the historic rejection of the US bases treaty by the Philippine Senate, US forces have managed to diminish this victory by having permanent and continuing presence in Mindanao. It’s like the bases never really left. While the US facilities in Mindanao host a much smaller force, the rationale for their presence remains the same.

The problem with US troops in Mindanao highlight the serious flaws of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The VFA’s vagueness is being exploited to allow the permanent stationing of an unlimited number of foreign troops, engaged in unspecified activities, anywhere in the country.

There has been a review of the VFA completed by Malacanang, yet the results have not been made public. Unfortunately, the review does not include the question of permanent basing of US troops in Mindanao. (To be continued)

Malacanang should move to cancel all upcoming joint military exercises and ongoing US military operations while the review of the Visiting Forces Agreement is ongoing.

If Malacanang is saying that there are questionable or problematic provisions in the agreement, why allow US troops unhampered entry into the country?

Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa has been quoted as saying the Palace review of the VFA will focus on the provisions on custody of erring US troops. This was spurred by the Philippine’s experience with the case of US Marine Daniel Smith who was accused of rape, convicted by a regional trial court, detained in a Philippine facility then transferred to the US embassy.

The Supreme Court ruled that such transfer was not in accordance with the VFA. However, before the matter could be fully resolved, before the Philippine government complied with the court ruling, Smith was acquitted by the Court of Appeals. The Philippine government under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not show any signs that it would comply with the SC order to begin with. When Smith was acquitted, the Philippine government asked the court to declare the issue of custody moot.

On a side note, the person who maneuvered to have Smith transferred to the US embassy, Alberto Romulo,  was reappointed as DFA Secretary under Aquino.

Mr. Ochoa has said that the VFA provisions on custody are problematic. He worried that should a similar incident such as the Subic rape case happen, there would again be legal controversies.

This is why we believe that while the review is ongoing, ALL joint exercises and ALL US military operations in the country should be cancelled. What is the sense of allowing US military operations to continue when we know that when violations happen, the Philippines will again be at the losing end? How do we prevent a repeat of the humiliating experience we suffered in the Smith case?

Should there be another violation of Philippine law how will the Aquino government react? How do we ensure our national interests are upheld given the problematic VFA provisions on custody?

We can’t. The VFA was designed such that US troops will always be given special treatment. This alone is reason enough for the government to suspend all US military operations in the Philippines. This should include the operations of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines based in Zamboanga and other areas in Mindanao. These overstaying troops have a streak of violations, gross misconduct and disrespect for Philippine laws.

The US recently held the annual Cooperation and Afloat Readiness Training exercises involving US warships like the USS Essex and USS Halsey. This activity was part of the “US power-projection” meant to strengthen US control and influence in the region.

But what happens after the VFA provisions on custody are resolved? Will that make the VFA more palatable?

We believe that the VFA is beyond redemption. It is not just the provision on custody of erring US troops which is problematic. The agreement itself is full of vague provisions that allow an unlimited number of US troops to enter the Philippines, stay here for an indefinite period of time, and engage in unspecified activities. The VFA is a legal framework for the unhampered and unregulated stationing of foreign troops on Philippine territory, sans any actual basing treaty.

It is untrue that the VFA can be mutually beneficial to the US and the Philippines and that a mere review can make it so. Those who are saying that the VFA can be mutually beneficial are living in a dream. The VFA was designed as a one-sided agreement that benefits mainly the US. The past 11 years have shown that the agreement is patently one-sided. We are being treated to American military junk in exchange for the unlimited use of Philippine territory for US basing operations.

I got to talk to a former member of the AFP (Air Force) who experienced training under the VFA. While this officer learned some “skills” during the Balikatan exercises (night flying), the “skills” could not be used because the equipment needed were with the US. The Philippines did not have equipment for night-flying. And those other officers who learned new skills will soon apply for jobs at commercial airlines! He said that there is no way the AFP will modernize under such as system. The training exercises were “just for show”, he said.

The stark reality is that no amount of fine-tuning can save this one-sided military pact.

The VFA was not even ratified by the US Senate, in direct contradiction with the requirements of the Philippine constitution. US policymakers “recognize” the VFA as a treaty even if the official actions of the US Senate show otherwise.  This was argued extensively by the lawyers of various anti-VFA groups and personalities but unfortunately, the SC did not see it that way. The SC averred that the VFA was merely an implementation of an existing treaty, the Mutual Defense Treaty  of  1951 which was approved more than half a century ago. Sen. Miriam Santiago asked how the MDT could contemplate something such as the VFA which was entered into more than 40 years after the MDT was signed! The two agreements are decades apart.

Presidential Commission on the VFA should also examine the legal basis for the continuous, uninterrupted and permanent presence of US troops in Mindanao since 2002. The US troops under the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines are indefinitely stationed in Mindanao following a unilateral announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates last August 2009. Former Navy Lt.SG Nancy Gadian testified that before the Philippine Senate that US forces have built permanent structures and have remained stationed in Mindanao since 2002. This no longer falls under the definition of “visiting”.
While we have no illusions on the outcome, it would still be good to engage the VFA review being conducted by Malacanang. It’s important that the public be made aware of the serious flaws of the VFA. The illusion of mutuality and reciprocity under the VFA should once and for all be demolished. The review is an opportunity to revive discussions on national sovereignty and an independent foreign policy.

Right now, the biggest stumbling block to an honest and objective VFA review is the Aquino government’s subservience to US impositions and interests. So long as the Aquino government remains dependent on US investments, loans and grants, and on American military junk, it is not likely that it will move to terminate the VFA on its own. Such is the effect of having a mendicant foreign policy.

During the review period, the people’s actions will play a crucial role. As in the rejection of the US bases treaty in 1991, the people’s protest will be the decisive factor in pushing the Philippine government to terminate the VFA.

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The Visiting Forces Agreement has proven to be a patently one-sided pact that is an affront to our national sovereignty. Mere refinement, as Malacanang is suggesting, cannot save this agreement.  The Aquino administration should, in the course of its review, and on the basis of national interest, abrogate the agreement.

Lawmakers from both chambers of Congress have called for the junking of the VFA. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines historically opposed the ratification of the pact. Women’s groups, lawyers and students have protested against the provisions of this one-sided agreement.

Eleven years since the VFA was passed, we have come to see the true intent of the agreement. The VFA has allowed US troops to remain in the country indefinitely, even absent an actual basing treaty. The VFA has been used by the US to regain lost ground from the Philippine Senate’s historic rejection of a new US bases treaty in 1991.

For all intents and purposes, the US troops have been stationed in Mindanao on a permanent and continuing basis since 2002. This was further confirmed by the August 2009 unilateral decision of the US government through Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 600 US Special Forces elements will be staying in Mindanao indefinitely.

Up to now, such a decision by the US has not been questioned by the Philippine government despite the obvious circumvention of the constitutional prohibition against foreign bases sans any treaty ratified by the Philippine Senate.

The problem with the VFA is not just the provisions on criminal jurisdiction. The whole agreement reeks of inequality; from the broad and vague provisions on what defines visiting US troops up to the mode by which the agreement was entered into. The VFA was ratified by as a treaty by the Philippine Senate but did not go through the same process in the US Senate. The VFA is being used to further US hegemonic interests in the region while the Philippines gets American military junk.

A “refinement” of the VFA would mean accepting the flawed framework and logic of the VFA.

It is time the Philippine government makes a stand for national interest and abrogate the VFA. Our national interests cannot be sacrificed just because our armed forces are so dependent on surplus military supplies from the US. ###

Renato Reyes, Jr.
March 3, 2009

The Department of Foreign Affairs. Department o f Justice and the Department of National Defense are singing the chorus that the VFA is indispensible and that we stand to lose the huge benefits from the accord. The alleged benefits are spelled out in terms of “counter-terrorism” training and “humanitarian missions”. The DFA released a fact sheet last week detailing the benefits from the VFA.

DFA: “The RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is crucial to building a strong Philippines and maintaining a stable Asia-Pacific.” As an integral part of the network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific, the VFA helps preserve peace and stability in an era of uncertainty brought on by the emergence of non-traditional threats to security. The VFA implements the Philippines’ only military alliance and its most effective deterrent against any potential aggressor.

We say: More than anything, it is the US which is most interested in maintaining is military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as part of its forward presence and power projection against potential rivals. US military deployment in the region serves primarily US geo-political and economic interest. The same could be said for the time when the US had military bases in the country. The justifications then were the “cold war”. Now it’s the “war on terror”. Whatever they call it, it’s the same drive for US hegemony.

The DFA says that the VFA is a deterrent to external aggression. Aggression from whom? The Chinese? The Japanese (again)? As far as we know, there are no external threats confronting the Philippines. We are not at war with any country. And if the VFA is so concerned with external threats, why is it being invoked to address INTERNAL threats including the Abu Sayyaf?

Furthermore, how exactly does the VFA build a strong Philippines when it undermines our judiciary and our institutions for governance? The Smith incident and his continuing detention in the US embassy is a clear example of how the VFA weakens our institutions because it insists that US troops enjoy exemptions and special treatment.

DFA: “The VFA is essential to RP-US cooperation in the Philippine Defense Reform Program.” As a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), the Philippines enjoys priority status in sourcing Excess Defense Articles.

We say: The status of the MNNA was “bestowed” on us in 2003 during Arroyo’s meeting with Bush. It was a “reward” for Arroyo’s support for the unjustified US invasion of Iraq.

Being a major Non-Nato Ally means we get Excess Defense Articles or US military hand-me-downs. This is nothing new because even during the time of the US bases, we got some $140 million in second hand stuff. The question we should ask is, “despite all that second hand gear, why is it that the AFP still failed to modernize?” The AFP did not modernize when we had US bases here. It certainly won’t modernize from arms surplus from the US now.

The Federation of American Scientists in an article said “Not wanting to pay the costs of storing or destroying the surplus, the Department of Defense dispenses most of it for free or at deep reduction through the excess defense articles (EDA) program… Among the leading recipients of free weapons through the EDA program in 1996 were Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain and Turkey — all countries where serious political repression and/or human rights violations were reported.”
The Philippine government, with its gross human rights abuses, fits perfectly in the profile of big-time EDA recipients.

On the other hand, what do the Americans get from the VFA?

They are allowed the entry of an unlimited number of troops who can be stationed in the Philippines for an unlimited period of time. They have been stationed in Zamboanga, inside Camp Navarro, since 2002. They have set up there a headquarters for the Joint Special Operations Task Force- Philippines. They have a virtual base even in the absence of a basing treaty. They are no longer just visitors since they’ve been staying from almost seven years now. We can’t really monitor who goes in and out because they’re not required to get visas.

The VFA is some ways worse than the bases agreement because it is in effect indefinitely unlike the Military Bases Agreement which expired in 1991.

The US troops gets special treatment when legal issues arise.

The US forces do not pay customs duties and are not required to secure visas.

At any given time, there are US troops stationed in the country. It’s as if the bases never left.

DFA: The VFA generates income for the country… provided revenues for the AFP amounting to US$706,425.28 from seventy (70) recorded transactions. United States ship visits to the Philippines have brought in $ 5 million and $ 9.5 million in 2006 and 2007, respectively, as proceeds from the replenishment of supplies and logistics.

We say: This assertion smacks of utter mendicancy. Just because we get a few million dollars in supposed income, the DFA thinks that the VFA has become indispensable. “Extra income” doesn’t make a compelling argument for indispensability. Neither do second-hand military equipment or even medical missions. These do not make the VFA “indispensable” as the DFA insists, especially when taken in the light of national sovereignty.

During the negotiations for the renewal of the RP-US bases agreement, there was an estimate that the Philippines would be getting some $730 million all-in yearly compensation. Still, this did not convince Philippine senators to ratify the treaty. And rightly so. Sovereignty should not have a price tag.

DFA: The VFA facilitates RP-US cooperation eliminating the scourge of terrorism and in rebuilding in times of disaster.

We say: The scourge of terrorism is a dangerous and sweeping term considering that the US and Philippine governments have a penchant of using the terrorist label on legitimate liberation movements and critics of US policies. In the context of the Bush “war on terror”, US deployment globally is meant to protect and advance US hegemonic interests. The “war on terror” has been totally discredited especially after the invasion of Iraq and the scandals at Guantanamo.

So-called “terrorism” falls outside the threats contemplated under the Mutual Defense Treaty from which the VFA takes its cue. And if the DFA is referring to efforts at neutralizing the bandit group Abu Sayyaf, we believe that this should be properly handled by Philippine authorities as a domestic issue and not subjected to US intervention. The ASG threat has become such a convenient excuse to have US troops in Mindanao that one wonders if the ASG’s continued existence is meant to justify continuing US presence.

DFA: The VFA directly benefits the Filipino people through its civil-military and humanitarian component.

We say: Why does the Philippine government make such a big deal out of these dental and medical missions conducted by the US troops? Clearly the so-called “humanitarian” missions are merely part of the bigger military objectives of intervention. These civic actions are meant to increase public acceptance of the interventionist force, as admitted to by the documents of the US Pacific Command. If the US military occupation in Iraq conducts medical and dental missions, does that change the fact that they are a foreign occupation force?

The Philippine government has the primary role in providing medical services to its people. These services can be undertaken even without the presence of American soldiers in our barrios, if only the Philippine government prioritizes health and other social services.

One time, US forces in Sulu ordered a hospital in Panamao town to close not later than 6pm because US forces felt the presence of a public hospital near their encampment was a security threat.

DFA: The VFA is a concrete manifestation of the enduring alliance between the Philippines and the United States. Clearly, the strategic defense relations, with the VFA as its anchor, have been instrumental in strengthening the country, securing its stability and in ensuring its continued prosperity.

We say: The so-called enduring alliance has dragged the Philippines to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the US invasion of Iraq. This alliance has supported US aggression worldwide, dragging us into wars not of our own choosing.

This alliance is lopsided in favor of the US. This alliance does not serve national interest. These relations are not built on mutuality and reciprocity. Look at VFA 2 and see how differently Filipino troops are treated compared to their American counterparts in VFA 1.

That the VFA is useful for national development is an unsubstantiated and outrageous claim. Given the fact that the country is in the throes of a crisis, it is ridiculous to even claim that our “strategic defense relations” with the US has been instrumental in strengthening the country, securing its stability and in ensuring its continued prosperity.
We can certainly do without the VFA. Nothing in this agreement makes it indispensable. In fact, there is even urgency to rid ourselves of this one-sided pact and to reassert our national sovereignty. ###