SC orders Palace, DFA to comment on VFA withdrawal petition by senators

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 03 2020 04:13 PM

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. during a Senate committee hearing on February 4, 2020. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - The Supreme Court on Tuesday required the Office of the Executive Secretary and the Department of Foreign Affairs to comment on a petition filed by the Senate seeking to clarify its role in the cancellation of treaties, particularly, on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.

A Supreme Court source said the ES and the DFA were given 10 days to file their comment, but "the comment may be filed earlier because of the 'suspension of the revocation' of [the] VFA."

In March, senators sought clarification from the high court as to their role in the cancellation of treaties, urging it to compel the executive to seek the Senate's nod before withdrawal from any treaty.

At the center of the issue is how to interpret Section 21 of Article VII of the 1987 Constitution, which reads: “No treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the Members of the Senate.”

The constitutional provision, while requiring Senate concurrence for the validity and effectivity of a treaty or international agreement, is silent on withdrawal.

The Philippines formally terminated the decades-old agreement with the US on Feb. 11 upon President Rodrigo Duterte's order after he complained over Washington's cancellation of the visa of his ally, Sen. Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa.

The termination was to take effect after 180 days.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he sent a diplomatic note to the US ambassador informing him that the abrogation of the VFA has been suspended upon the instructions of Duterte.

In the formal notice dated June 1, 2020, Locsin cited "political and other developments in the region" as the reason for the suspension, and then, later on Wednesday, specified "heightened super power tensions" and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The suspension of the abrogation will be in effect for 6 months, extendable by the President for another 6 months, "after which the tolling of the initial period" contained in the February note verbale shall resume.

The lawmakers' petition on the Senate's role in treaty cancellations is reminiscent of opposition senators’ pleading before the SC questioning the Philippines’ withdrawal in 2018 from the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court.

Senators directly challenged Duterte's unilateral move by asking the high court to revoke the notice of withdrawal sent to the United Nations Secretary General. The country was officially out of the ICC in March 2019.

In the VFA abrogation case, the senators said they are first seeking the delineation of the boundaries between the powers of the President and the Senate, and will not immediately ask for the revocation of the withdrawal from the VFA because that will be subject to a vote later on.

The ICC withdrawal petition was not backed by a Senate resolution, unlike the VFA-related plea.