By Christina Mendez | The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines - Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor Santiago and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. are together again, this time in expressing reservations over the Senate’s move to concur with the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) between the Philippines and Australia.
Santiago said concurrence of the Philippines “may threaten the sovereignty of the country.”
“They want to have a special status in our country, above and beyond that to be enjoyed by a foreigner. We already have a Bill of Rights under the Constitution. Ang pakay lang natin, mabigyan ng special status ang kanilang bansa (Our intention is to give their country special status),” Santiago said during interpellation of the agreement yesterday.
Unlike the Philippines’ VFA with the United States, which Washington did not submit to the US Congress for concurrence, the Australian parliament ratified the SOVFA a few years ago.
Australian officials have stressed that the SOVFA provides for reciprocity, meaning all rights enjoyed by Australian forces visiting the Philippines will be enjoyed by Filipino troops in Australia.
Santiago said the SOVFA will reduce Philippine sovereignty and may even pose a threat to the security of the Filipino people.
She called on Malacañang to clarify the specific activities of the visiting Australian forces.
Santiago raised a concern on the criminal jurisdiction of the agreement, which is under Article 11. She said the article impinges on the exclusive power of the Supreme Court.
But Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, explained that the provision on criminal jurisdiction aims to provide clearer rules on custody and confinement
“I cannot believe that the SOVFA encroaches on the SC because that power does not bestow on jurisdiction,” Legarda said.
Santiago also pointed to a provision about “death penalty,” which should not be carried out by both parties. “How do you resolve the apparent conflict in the position of the death penalty and the provision on Constitution?” Santiago asked.
Under Article 3, Section 19 of the Constitution, Santiago noted that death penalty can be allowed for “compelling reasons involving heinous crimes.”
Santiago cited some loopholes in the agreement, particularly Article 13 paragraph 8, which provides for the exemption from duties and taxes of the visiting Australian forces.
She added such agreement should require the concurrence of a majority of all members of Congress.
Santiago said the treaty violates the “doctrine of void for vagueness.”
“It is so vague that it will spawn myriad irritants in Philippine-Australia relations,” she said.
She also criticized the agreement because it did not specify the magnitude of Australian military presence in the country.
Marcos, on the other hand, sought a clarification on the government’s foreign policy before he concurs with the agreement.
He said there is a need to include in the equation the aggressiveness of China in asserting its rights over the West Philippine Sea.
“It’s becoming a little delicate because many of the critics of the Australian VFA are also saying this is only a method of forward positioning, again to posture against China,” Marcos said.
He lamented that the government does not have a well-explained and well-thought out foreign policy.
“So we do not know exactly how we are supposed to do with our relationship with other countries,” Marcos said.
Arroyo, for his part, said that the agreement will be disadvantageous to the Philippine government.
“We don’t have benefit and I don’t know what’s the harm… (Australia) is even giving us a hard time in terms of products,” Arroyo said.
“So we should look into it, on what advantages we should get,” he said.
Arroyo noted that Australia had been banning Philippine fruits such as mangoes, bananas and pineapples.
“Our balance of trade is P500 million in import... lopsided in the balance of our trade (with Australia),” he noted.
Responding to Arroyo’s queries, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said the government should balance the military alliance with economic concerns.
“We need military alliance because we cannot go it alone with our military resources,” Enrile said.
The Senate on Monday tackled a resolution concurring with the ratification of SOVFA.
Legarda noted in her sponsorship speech that Australia and the Philippines are two sovereign nations whose survival will be defined by its defense and protection of its maritime domains.
“We share with Australia a strong interest in maritime security cooperation and a shared strategic interest in the security of Southeast Asian shipping lanes,” she added.