Press Release
June 6, 2012

Resolution concurring with the ratification of the status
of the visiting forces agreement between the Philippines and Australia approved on second reading

The Senate closed on the last day of session the period of interpellation on Senate Resolution No. 788, concurring with the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the governments of the Philippines and Australia.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, together with Senators Loren Legarda, Jinggoy Estrada, Franklin Drilon, Vicente Sotto III, Pia Cayetano, Bong Revilla, Teofisto "TG" Guingona III, Antonio Trillanes IV, Edgardo Angara, Kiko Pangilinan, Panfilo Lacson and Gregorio Honasan voted to approve the measure on second reading, while seven Senators namely Senators Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor Santiago, Koko Pimentel, Ralph Recto, Sergio Osmena III, Manny Villar and Bongbong Marcos voted against the treaty.

Senator Kiko Pangilinan, meanwhile, reserved the right to explain his vote once the resolution is taken up on third reading. According to Sotto, the third reading of SRN 788 will be done when session resumes on July 23.

The Agreement, which was ratified by President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III on December 23, 2010, called for the issuance of a Memorandum Order (MO) directing the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) to closely monitor the activities of the Australian Visiting Forces and its Civilian Component in the Philippines, and ensure that these activities do not violate any of the environmental laws and ordinances of the country.

"The Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with Australia sets a precedent in defense agreements in that it has unique provisions on environmental protection. The Agreement explicitly prohibits the conduct of exercises or other activities in protected areas, ancestral domain areas, critical watersheds and protected forest areas," Senator Loren Legarda, sponsor of the resolution and chair of the Senate Committees on Foreign Relations and Climate Change, said.

"It also provides that any environmental damage will be subjected to claims and compensation and that the sending state will be responsible for the rehabilitation of damaged areas," Legarda added. The Agreement has unique provisions that address environmental protection.

"The Agreement will enforce the duties and obligations of both parties with respect to environmental protection, including the clean-up and restoration of any local site or body of water that may be affected by the activities allowed for under the Agreement," Legarda explained.

"SOVFA will ensure that Australian Visiting Forces and its Civilian Component are well-informed of our environmental laws and regulations," Legarda added.

The Agreement also calls for the Service Authorities of Australia to cooperate with the Philippine government to prevent any abuse or misuse of the privileges granted in favor of Australian Visiting Forces and its Civilian Component, and to ensure that proper discharge of the obligations imposed on the visiting party are met.

Legarda said that the Agreement addresses the sensitive issue of criminal jurisdiction "through a clear set of rules," and that the "authorities of the receiving state have jurisdiction over visiting forces with respect to offences committed within the receiving state and punishable by the law of the receiving state, but not by the law of the sending state."

"With respect to criminal jurisdiction, it is provided in the Philippine-Australian VFA that the receiving state shall exercise primary jurisdiction over all offenses except for offenses relating to the property and security of the sending state, and offenses performed in official duty. Thus, as a general rule, offenses shall be under the primary jurisdiction of the receiving state. We believe that these are but reasonable rights afforded to the sending state," Legarda added.

According to Legarda, there is also emphasis made in the SOVFA regarding the principle of respect for the laws of the receiving state.

"No offender from the visiting forces who commits a crime in the Philippines will escape justice under the SOVFA," Legarda stressed.

The resolution also states that the Agreement must provide for a comprehensive legal framework that will govern the status of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Australian Defense Forces personnel who will participate in education, training, combined exercises and humanitarian activities in each other's territories.

The Agreement, which provides for enhanced bilateral defense and military cooperation between the two countries through the exchange of visits, was anchored on the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperative Defense Activities with Australia through exchange of visits.

Since 2001, Australia has extended defense assistance to the Philippines totaling an estimated P1.16 billion, which has resulted in significant gains in the country's efforts to upgrade its defense mechanisms. These include, among others, military education and training of an average of 120 AFP officers annually in Australia, costing an average of US$ 26.751 million per year; contribution of US$ 17.834 million worth of riverine boats as part of the efforts to upgrade counter-terrorism and maritime security capabilities; supporting the implementation of the Coast Watch System to strengthen the country's capability in addressing maritime security challenges; and conducting counter-terrorism trainings and mutual training assistance to help develop inter-operability between the special operations units of the armies and navies of the Philippines and Australia.

Meanwhile, Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago, and Joker Arroyo have expressed their reservations over the Senate's move to concur with the SOVFA.

Santiago pointed out a part of the Agreement which says that the visiting forces may temporarily use land, sea and air space or other facilities of the receiving state for training, exercises or other activities mutually approved by both countries, but noted that there is no clear constitutional basis for the country's military forces to be trained by a visiting force.

"Proponents of the Agreement between the Philippines and Australia have not made clear what the constitutional basis is for the Philippines to allow our military forces to be trained by a visiting force in our own territory," Santiago said, and warned that concurrence of the Philippines "may threaten the sovereignty of the country."

For his part, Arroyo insisted that the agreement will be disadvantageous to the Philippine government, noting that Australia has been banning Philippine fruits such as mangoes, bananas and pineapples.

"We should look into it, on what advantages we should get," Arroyo said. (Yvonne Almirañez PRIB)

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