The United States government will have jurisdiction over American servicemen who violate Philippine laws while they are deployed in the country, a member of the Philippine panel negotiating an agreement on the increased rotational presence (IRP) of US forces said.
“On matters of jurisdiction, yes [the US is in charge],” Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya told a press briefing in Camp Aguinaldo on Monday.
Malaya said the erring American soldiers will be governed by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which the Philippine Senate ratified on May 27, 1999.
Jurisdiction over US troops who commit crimes in the Philippines has been a thorny issue ever since US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was accused of raping a 22-year-old Filipino inside the Subic Bay Freeport in 2005.
On December 4, 2006, a Makati Regional Trial Court found Smith guilty as charged and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.
Instead of spending time in a local jail, Smith was detained at the US Embassy in Manila, despite a Supreme Court ruling ordering his transfer to Philippine custody.
Smith was later allowed to return to the US following an amicable settlement with the family of the rape victim.
Malaya said local enforcers would be allowed access to the areas that would be occupied by American servicemen in the “exercise of their police power” but cannot make any arrests.
Sources in the Defense department said the jurisdiction issue cost Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos Soreta his place in the Philippine panel.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario removed Soreto even before the start of the first round of talks last January after Soreta opposed conceding jurisdiction to the US.
He also insisted that the Philippine military gain control of the equipment and facilities that would be brought in or built by the Americans.
Another panel member, Ambassador Lourdes Yparaguirre, explained that ousting Soreto was a decision of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“In these negotiations we talked about rotational presence as one of the modalities, we also have a rotation mechanism in the Philippine foreign service. What was not changed however is the commitment of the Philippine panel to advance the Philippine interest in this negotiations,” Yparaguirre said.
The accord will be signed against the backdrop of the increased Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
House leaders see the balance of power in the disputed waters maintained with the presence of American troops in the country.
“The increased rotational presence of US forces in the country should be allowed since it will have a significant impact of balancing the forces in the Southeast Asian region. China has been increasingly aggressive on [their stance vs.] smaller countries like the Philippines. This certainly will deter China from further bullying us,” Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain and the Vice Chairman of the House National Defense and Security panel, said in a text message.
“The mere presence of US forces in our soil and our adversary’s knowledge that the US is our ally would at least retain the status quo in the West Philippine Sea. That way, China won’t fully occupy it [PH islands in the Exclusive Economic Zone],” Sherwin Tugna of Citizens Battle Against Corruption, the House Deputy Majority leader, added.
“Just like in the Cold War, an effective balance of power will ensure all parties to the negotiating table to forge a peaceful settlement,” Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bicol said.
But for Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan, allowing Americans on Philippine soil will only make the country a target of China’s lingering ire and a pawn of the power struggle between Washington and Beijing.
“There is no such thing as free lunch. The US, not exactly known for its generosity but instead for pursuing its own interests, will extract its pound of flesh from us,” Ilagan said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda agreed that the presence of US servicemen will strengthen the country’s hand in the face of sea disputes with China.
“Does this help in terms of the presence—the rotational presence—of the Americans? Certainly it would help. And the reason why it helps is because there’s some technology transfer, there’s knowledge sharing between the American forces and the Philippine forces when they do conduct military exercises,” Lacierda said.
He said such an agreement would improve the “quality of the Philippines in terms of preparedness.”
“Let me also emphasize that a part of this rotational presence is now focusing on disaster preparedness and disaster reduction.
That’s one of the big improvements especially when it comes to increased rotational presence where we saw the involvement of the American military when Typhoon Yolanda hit Central Visayas,” Lacierda said.
On Sunday, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. assured the agreement would not allow the US government to set up permanent bases in the Philippines but would only “share” camps with the Philippine military.
With report from Joel M. Sy Egco