PHILIPPINES: Unequal relations invite impunity

Monday 20 October 2014

Date: 19 October 2014

Source: Business World

Type: News

Keywords:Visiting forces agreement, US militarization

MUCH TO THE CONSTERNATION of US and Philippine officialdom, the brutal killing of Jennifer Laude allegedly by suspect Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton has placed the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) front and center. From Day One it has been crystal clear to all except the Philippine Armed Forces chief (who insists the killing will “not affect our relationship with the United States”) that this crime is inextricably bound to the unequal relationship between the Philippines and the US as expressed in the VFA, in particular its provisions on criminal jurisdiction.

The police and prosecutors should have no difficulty whatsoever in nailing this case, were it not for the fact that the suspect is a US serviceman. Unlike in the 2005 case of the Filipino rape victim “Nicole,” both the court proceedings and the public discourse revolved around whether a rape had actually occurred. In the Laude case, the corpus delicti is there for all to see. And no amount of speculation about what caused Pemberton to go on a murderous rampage (ranging from his discovery that Jennifer was not a “bona fide” female after having engaged her for “sexual service,” Jennifer attempting to rob Pemberton, or this being a case of a “hate crime” against a transgender woman) can change the fact that Jennifer lies dead at the hands of a US soldier positively identified by several witnesses.

Moreover, by no stretch of the imagination can the offense be construed to be “arising out of any act or omission done in performance of official duty.” Cases in point are the shooting of farmer Buyong-Buyong Isnijal in Tuburan, Basilan, in 2002 involving American soldier Reggie Lane; the shooting of Arsid Baharon in Barangay San Roque, Zamboanga City, in 2004 by an American soldier (whose identity US authorities withheld); and other transgressions and crimes by US troops while engaged in so-called joint military exercises. In the latter, the involved soldiers have simply been spirited away by the US, with the Philippine government complicit in the surrender of Philippine criminal jurisdiction and national sovereignty.

More than a week after Laude’s death, the alleged killer has not faced any Philippine investigator. The Laude family has not been approached by any responsible official of the Aquino government to advise them of their legal rights and inform them of what the government is doing to protect and uphold these rights. Instead, its officials have gratuitously announced that custody must remain with the US authorities as stated in the VFA. The Aquino government has had to form an inter-agency body consisting of the VFA Commission, the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, and Social Welfare and Development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Police — to “discuss coordination” with US authorities on this latest incident.

Were it not for the public uproar and the protest actions of the LGBT community, nationalists and activists, the aggrieved relatives of the victim would have had no recourse but to merely beg authorities to act swiftly and arrest the perpetrator. Whether this case will go the way of all previous crimes committed by US soldiers against Filipinos, on Philippine territory, or result in the conviction and punishment of the perpetrators (as what happened to two US Navy sailors convicted and hauled off to jail for robbing and raping an Okinawan woman) will be a function of the vigilance and unwavering demand for justice by the Laude family and their supporters.

Now the VFA, Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and the even more lopsided Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are argued to be in accord with the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). On Nov. 11, 2011, the 60th anniversary of the MDT, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a Manila Declaration reaffirming the MDT as “the foundation for our relationship for the next 60 years and beyond.”

The MDT was imposed on the Philippines under severely unequal conditions. The US then had emerged practically unscathed from World War II as the most powerful and prosperous state, while the Philippines had barely begun to recover from the devastation wrought by war. The Cold War, deceptively billed as nothing less than a life-and-death struggle between good and evil, democracy and communism, was just beginning to unfold. The Philippines and the US, as enshrined in the MDT, were to be allies “against the spread of communism” and the pursuit of “democracy and world peace.”

Over the past century, no one comes close to the US’ ignominious record of sovereign states invaded and occupied, governments overthrown, dictators installed and propped up, fascist surrogate armies trained and armed, bombs dropped on populated areas, and innocents massacred. It has the distinction of having had to coin and popularize a phrase — collateral damage — to justify the indiscriminate targeting and slaughter of civilians.

All in the name of democracy and world peace.

It is not as though Malacaang and Padre Faura are unaware of these and are uncritical of the myths they peddle. In his memoirs, former foreign affairs secretary Carlos P. Romulo writes how, in the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine and create the Jewish state of Israel, President Manuel Roxas had believed that the partition would aggravate the crisis and conflict in the Middle East and even escalate the wars. He thus instructed the Philippine UN delegation to vote “no.” Romulo recounts how the US threatened withdrawal of economic aid to pressure the Philippines and other smaller countries to reverse their vote.

More recently, another foreign affairs secretary and retired diplomat admitted that the VFA and EDCA have provisions that surrender national sovereignty and are detrimental to national interest. But she explained that the lopsidedness is a reality the Philippines could not change because the US is now the sole superpower and can do as it pleases. She said that the Philippines still needs to grow stronger economically and militarily, and its people and government to learn to adopt a more independent mind-set to change this imbalance. A tall order considering that the former colonizer’s domination of the country extends to economic, political and cultural spheres, each one reinforcing the other.

Some foreign policy experts view the surrender of national sovereignty to the detriment of national interest as a symptom of the disconnect between foreign and domestic policy, whereas the rule of thumb is that foreign policy is or should be an extension of domestic policy. The truth is that the kowtowing of successive administrations dating back to the American colonial period is indeed a mere reflection of their subservience to US interests and dictates in the domestic arena.

Until that chain of servility and dependence is broken, the Philippines will be doomed to unequal domestic and foreign relations, and the transgressions on its national sovereignty and interest will continue with impunity.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.

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