2009 (STAR) By Pia Lee-Brago - The RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will not be raised by the United States during the meeting of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Philippine officials, but the issue of human rights is expected to be discussed.

“From our side, we don’t actually intend to discuss any specific agreement we have with the Philippines, whether it’s the VFA, trade agreement, any of our other mutual defense cooperation,” US Ambassador Kristie Kenney told radio station dzBB.

“Everyone has his own issue that they hope will come up in some way, shape or form and so I know there are people who want details of the VFA discussed,” Kenney said.

Militant groups calling for a review or scrapping of the VFA said the visit of Clinton to Manila for consultation with Philippine officials is an opportunity to deliver the message to US government to revisit the agreement.

“I’ll not speak to what message the Filipino people, the Philippine public, the Philippine Congress might offer to the Secretary of State. What is on her mind and what she hears from people here may be totally different,” Kenney added.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said she believed Clinton will visit Manila because of concerns over calls to scrap the VFA and seek assurance that the Philippines will stick to the accord.

Clinton’s visit takes place as the Philippines pins its hope on the State Department to delete the conditions Washington set on its military aid to the country.

The $2-million military aid to the Philippines in 2009 was withheld allegedly because of human rights abuses previously raised by groups and churches in the US.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said the Obama administration recently requested upon submission of its 2010 budget request the deletion of conditions on the US$2 million security assistance in the 2009 appropriations act in recognition of significant progress made by the Philippines in addressing human rights concerns.

During the Veterans Day ceremony yesterday at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Taguig City, Kenney said human rights, and how the two countries can work together on it, will be included in the subjects for discussion.

“Secretary Clinton is a strong advocate of human rights so I’m sure she’ll talk about ways that we can all work together on human rights and ways and the situation like Burma,” Kenney said in a chance interview.

Watchdog cites US responsibility

On Tuesday, a human rights watchdog urged Clinton to press President Arroyo to prosecute military members responsible for politically motivated killings.

Because of the historically close relations between the US and the Philippines, and the direct US support for the Philippine military, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said there is particular responsibility on Washington to press the government to end the military’s involvement in human rights violations and to prosecute those responsible.

“Clinton should not waste this opportunity to raise human rights concerns in the Philippines,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “Clinton should make it very clear that the failure to seriously address unlawful killings could harm relations, particularly military-to-military cooperation,” she stressed.

HRW urged Clinton to raise several crucial human rights issues, noting that the Arroyo administration has not sufficiently investigated numerous extrajudicial killings where the military has been implicated.

It stressed that the government has yet to take strong action against local government-backed “death squads” in Davao City and elsewhere, and has tolerated unnecessary delays in investigations into these killings.

Tight security measures

Meanwhile, strict security measures are set for the arrival of Clinton at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) at around 12:00 noon today.

As a standard operating procedure, retired general Angel Atutubo, NAIA assistant general for security and emergency services, discussed the security arrangement for the official visit of one of the most powerful women in the world during a press briefing.

Aside from the airport’s various security personnel, which included the PNP-Aviation Security Group, Airport Police Department, Private security personnel, a special coordination with Southern Police District was also tapped for the arrival.

As early as Monday, US Embassy personnel conducted ocular inspection at the Ages hangar, a private aviation bay where top US and other foreign officials land their plane when visiting the country, as part of strict security measures.

Clinton is set to meet Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, US Ambassador Kenney, Philippine Ambassador to the US Willy Gaa, NAIA general manager Alfonso Cusi and some top government officials at the airport.

The US Secretary of State will stay in the Philippines for one day and will leave for Singapore on Friday. She will return to the Lion City to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting.

Militants are agitated

Clinton’s visit is expected to be marred by protest from militants calling for the scrapping of the treaty.

Some 30 members of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) tried to get past but were blocked by the police yesterday near the US embassy in Manila, a day before Clinton’s much-publicized arrival.

“The continuing permanent presence of US troops is a complete throwback to the days of US colonialism in the country. It is a proof that we remain under the beck and call of the Americans,” LFS secretary-general Terry Ridon said in a statement.

Ridon said Clinton’s visit is the best opportunity to show that the VFA had been an absolute affront to the Philippines’ national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

He said the humanitarian work by the US military during the recent typhoons was just a ruse by US authorities to legitimize military intervention in the country.

LFS said yesterday’s lightning rally was just a prelude to an even bigger anti-VFA rally scheduled today.

Because of this, the Manila Police District will deploy some 300 policemen, backed up by at least 100 civil disturbance management personnel from the National Capital Region Police Office, at the US embassy as early as 7 a.m. today for the projected rallies.

Two fire trucks are also on standby near the embassy.

Ermita police station chief Superintendent Romulo Sapitula said he directed his men to exercise maximum tolerance against the rallyists, even as the Commission on Human Rights will send representatives to document the protest actions.

The rallyists will be prevented from marching to the US embassy, but will instead be escorted to designated rally sites in Manila such as the Liwasang Bonifacio, according to Sapitula – With Rudy Santos, Nelson Etolle, Paolo Romero, James Mananghaya, AP


By Pia Lee-Brago - Visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to voice her country’s desire for a smooth transition of power in the Philippines through peaceful and orderly elections next year.

“I know Secretary Clinton does not want to get into specific politics, she is not going to support any one candidate or interfere in one way, but I am sure she will be excited to think about a good election coming up, how it will be transparent, a good transition between governments,” US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said in an interview with radio station dzBB.

Clinton is scheduled to arrive tomorrow and meet with President Arroyo in Malacañang. Clinton will be in the country until Friday.

“It will be interesting to see how it goes. You cannot possibly be in the Philippines now without being caught up in election fever, candidates, issues, parties. It is pretty exciting and I am sure the Secretary will be excited to see the energy and enthusiasm but I really do not know – and it is hard for me to predict – what directions those discussions will go,” Kenney said.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said on Saturday that one of the objectives of Clinton’s visit would be to discuss the conduct of elections.

Remonde said Mrs. Arroyo would reassure Clinton of “a peaceful and orderly transition of power.”

Kenney said Clinton also hopes to visit relief centers to find out what else the US government can do to help those displaced by the recent deadly typhoons.

“She is coming here first and foremost because she wants to show solidarity with the Filipino people in the wake of the storm, the typhoons and we are still developing her schedule, but we very much expect to include a visit to relief sites so that she can get a chance to see how people are doing and see how else we can continue to help our Filipino friends. She follows this so very closely,” she said.

The ambassador said Clinton also hopes to have a chance to visit the American cemetery.

“Everybody at the embassy hopes she gets a chance to come by here so we can all greet our superstar. And of course, she’ll have a chance to see the Philippines so it’ll be a fabulous visit,” she said.

Clinton’s visit to the Philippines tomorrow will be her first as Secretary of State.

Prior to her visit to Manila, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Clinton was in Singapore for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting.

She will return to Singapore on Friday to join President Barack Obama for the APEC Leaders’ Meeting.

Clinton’s visit comes at a time when the Philippines is urging the State Department to delete the conditions for US military aid to the country.

On Friday, Foreign Secretary Romulo said the Obama administration had requested the deletion of the conditions for the release of some $2 million in security assistance in recognition of significant progress made by the Philippines in addressing human rights concerns.

While the conditions remain in the proposed appropriation bill for 2010, the Department of Foreign Affairs clarified that the US Congress has yet to adopt a final version of the bill.

Romulo said the US Congress is in fact pushing for higher US military assistance to the Philippines compared to previous years’ levels.

Overall, he said the Obama administration has proposed $667 million in assistance for the Philippines for next year.

Human rights issue

The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Clinton to press President Arroyo to prosecute members of security forces responsible for politically motivated killings and disappearances.

“Clinton should not waste this opportunity to raise human rights concerns in the Philippines,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Clinton should make it very clear that the failure to seriously address unlawful killings could harm relations, particularly military-to-military cooperation,” she said.

Human Rights Watch said the Arroyo administration has not sufficiently investigated numerous unexplained killings in which the military has been implicated.

It also said the administration has not done enough to stop the “death squads” in Davao City, much less prosecute those responsible for the killings.

“In addition, Arroyo has not signed a law that would make torture by government officials a criminal offense,” Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2001, when Arroyo took office, hundreds of anti-government activists have been killed or made to disappear but only six cases have been successfully prosecuted.

“Clinton should stress to Arroyo that the US is gravely concerned about the inadequate efforts to investigate and prosecute military personnel responsible for extrajudicial killings,” Pearson said.

“There should be an understanding that the US intends to monitor progress in bringing perpetrators to justice and that failure to do so will increasingly raise concerns about US-Philippine relations,” she added.

Human Rights Watch investigations into the so-called Davao death squads have revealed the involvement of Davao City police officers and officials in the murders of alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children.

“President Arroyo has talked about the need to investigate death squad killings. Clinton should remind her that actions speak louder,” Pearson said.

Clinton, the group said, should also urge Mrs. Arroyo to sign into law the Anti-Torture Bill, which provides that confessions obtained by torture cannot be used as evidence. The measure also seeks to make torture a criminal offense.

The measure, passed by Congress on Oct. 15, is awaiting Mrs. Arroyo’s signature. – With Cecille Suerte Felipe

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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