MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States (US) is constitutional.
Voting 10-4, with former Solicitor General and now Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza inhibiting, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the EDCA allowing an increased US military presence in the Philippines.
Junking consolidated petitions assailing the constitutionality of the agreement, the high court ruled that "EDCA is not constitutionally infirm."
The high court stressed that EDCA is an executive agreement that is anchored on a previously upheld agreement, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which went through the Senate and the legal scrutiny of the SC. Thus, EDCA is not the principal agreement that first allowed the presence of US facilities and troops in the Philippines which would need Senate ratification.
The decision stated that EDCA's constitutionality is upheld "on the ground that Article XVIII, Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution allows the President to enter into an executive agreement on foreign military bases, troops, or facilities if: (a) it is not the instrument that allows the presence of foreign military bases, troops, or facilities, or (b) it merely aims to implement an existing law or treaty and holding that the EDCA is one such executive agreement."
"As an executive agreement, it remains consistent with existing laws and treaties that it purports to implement... The court ruled that EDCA is not the instrument that allows US 'troops or facilities' to enter as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) already has done that, citing its earlier decision in Lim v. Executive Secretary, where it also stated that the Constitution of the Philippines continues to govern the conduct of foreign military troops in the Philippines," the SC said.
The high court said the President must be able to wield "a larger measure of authority and wider discretion" for as long as his actions are consistent with the above-stated constitutional provision.
The high court disagreed with the Senate's position, submitted to the SC by way of Senate Resolution 105, that EDCA required Senate concurrence.
READ: 13 senators question EDCA's validity
"The President's choice of an executive agreement to contain the EDCA places the burden on respondents (President Aquino, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines) to show that it is a mere implementation of existing laws and treaties concurred in by the Senate. on this, the court found that the burden had been discharged by the respondents," the SC said.
Aside from the VFA, the high court also cited the Mutual Defense Treaty as an existing treaty, and affirmed by the SC in 2009, which also provides as basis for EDCA.
The petitioners in the case are led by former Senators Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada.
The four magistrates who disagreed with the majority decision are Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen. Leonardo-De Castro, Brion and Leonen issued separate dissenting opinions.
The EDCA, which was signed on April 28, 2014 before US President Barack Obama arrived for a two-day state visit to the Philippines, gives US forces access to the Philippine military facilities in the country.
The deal between the two allies was signed amid the growing tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
PH, US WELCOME SC RULING
Malacañang welcomed the ruling of the SC, saying the EDCA will help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and upgrade its capability for national defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
"According to the President, one of the benefits of the EDCA would be to introduce the AFP to the '...most modern equipment and have a generational leap in our abilities...'" said Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma.
"With this development that builds upon our mutual defense treaty, we look forward to advancing our defense modernization and strengthening Maritime Security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief capabilities. Likewise, this puts us in a better position to improve our interoperability with the US and increase our Armed Forces' capacities," Department of National Defense (DND) spokesman Peter Paul Galvez added.
AFP chief General Hernando Iriberri, likewise, said they look forward to addressing short-term capability gaps, helping maintain maritime security and maritime domain awareness, and developing HADR capabilities.
"These will redound to improving our capacity to perform our mandate to protect our people and secure the state," he said.
"With the Supreme Court's decision, the Philippine and US Governments can now proceed in finalizing the arrangements for its full implementation," the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.
The United States also welcomed the high court's decision, saying the EDCA will further strengthen the bilateral relationship between the Philippines and the US.
"EDCA is a mutually beneficial agreement that will enhance our ability to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and help build capacity for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We look forward to working closely with our Philippine partners on the implementation of this agreement," the US Embassy said in a statement.
'A SAD DAY'
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), on the other hand, said today "is another sad day for Philippine sovereignty."
Bayan said it is considering a motion for reconsideration, noting that the SC vote was not unanimous.
"The decision is a de facto reversal of the historic 1991 Senate vote that booted out US bases from the Philippines. The decision will pave the way for the construction of new US military facilities in different parts of the country. It likewise paves the way for the use by US troops of existing PH military facilities, rent free and tax free," the group said.
"We shall continue to expose and oppose US military intervention in the Philippines. We maintain that the EDCA is not the solution to the problem of China's incursions, not when the EDCA also violates PH sovereignty. The Filipino people must now resolutely oppose the return of US bases and all the social ills associated with these bases. Hindi kailanman naging limitado sa korte ang laban," it added.
Lawyer Harry Roque also expressed his dismay with the SC's decision. He also warned of a possible standoff between the SC and the Senate.
"I'm very disappointed. The court after all is expected to uphold the Philippine Constitution and I think a ruling that the EDCA complies with the Constitution is a betrayal of this function.
"I'd like to find out if the Senate now will exercise the ultimate political decision and move for the impeachment of the justices who completely disregarded the stand of the Philippine Senate as an institution," said Roque.