FOR the first time in living memory, the congressional Commission on Appointments has rejected the President’s nominee for the position of Secretary of Foreign Affairs, for having been an American citizen until two days before his Cabinet appointment, and for “lying” to the CA members about it. At the CA caucus on Wednesday, the 15-member foreign affairs committee unanimously recommended the rejection of Perfecto Yasay Jr., after extensive grilling by Rep. Josephine Ramirez Sato of Occidental Mindoro, who gave him no chance to extricate himself from the pit he had dug for himself. At the plenary session, which followed and which Yasay skipped, Senator Panfilo Lacson, as committee chair, moved the final motion for Yasay’s rejection. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, presiding, asked if there were any objections; none was heard from the floor.
Thus ended Yasay’s brief run as unconfirmed foreign secretary after eight months. This is what the Constitution means when it says, “The President shall nominate and, with the consent of the Commission on Appointments, appoint the heads of the executive departments, ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, or officers of the armed forces from the rank of colonel or naval captain, and other officers whose appointments are vested in him in this Constitution.” The CA routinely “bypasses” Cabinet nominees who fail to win its support, but as far as memory serves, this was the first time it ever rejected a nominee for the premier Cabinet post on citizenship issues.
A personal witness
I was a personal witness and victim of Yasay’s prevarication when he came to the editorial offices of The Manila Times not long ago. To my question about his rumored US citizenship, he said he had never been an American citizen, although his wife Cecile Joaquin Yasay, a very fine woman, was one. He made it appear that he was able to practice immigration law in New York and teach law in a university in Hawaii for years without having become a green card holder or a naturalized US citizen. However, Foreign Office sources insisted he was a US passport holder.
Aside from not telling the truth about his US passport, Yasay incurred the ire of the CA for claiming that questions about his citizenship were part of political destabilization efforts against the DU30 government. Congresswoman Sato, a lawyer like Yasay and a highly respected elected official, found this remark “contemptuous” and contemptible. It seems the end of the road for Yasay.
Appointing him to any other position now, whether or not it would require a CA confirmation, seems totally out of the question, unless DU30 would like to squander his political capital for nothing.
DU30 and Yasay are old buddies from Mindanao. Yasay is from Kidapawan, Cotabato, while DU30 is from Davao. They used to share a room in a dormitory when they were both still studying law at the San Beda Law School. But DU30, while being loyal to his friends, is no fool. Yasay on the other hand has taken us for fools. Unable to be forthright from the very start, he could have avoided the fatal trouble had he withdrawn from the confirmation process after questions about his foreign citizenship had arisen. After all he had already benefited for many years from his bogus credentials.
Aside from having been illegally in office as foreign secretary for eight months, he had been an illegal commissioner and chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission for seven years; an illegal senatorial candidate in 2004; and an illegal vice-presidential candidate in 2010. All these positions require a Filipino citizenship. But he apparently believed, with incredible naivete or self-confidence, that he would never be found out, or that since he had already renounced his foreign citizenship before his Foreign Office nomination, he was already in the clear. Alas, he was not.
Fallout from Yasay’s fall
This serial usurpation of public positions by a foreigner masquerading as a Filipino citizen has created problems about the validity of certain official acts of the usurper. Some of these acts involved transactions with foreign governments. What happens to those acts—and to Yasay? This question seems to have profound legal implications. But regardless of how one rates Yasay as an unconfirmed Cabinet official, his abrupt departure after eight months in office is a big blow to the President. For obvious reasons.
Yasay may not have been a source of strength for DU30 before the CA struck him down, but his rejection has become a terrible source and sign of weakness for the President. Not necessarily because he and DU30 were supposed to have been close friends, and yet he has let his friend down, but simply because this is not the time for the President not to have a foreign secretary beside him. The Philippine is hosting the Asean summit this year, and DU3O is also swamped with all sorts of public diplomacy problems, mostly related but not limited to the drug killings. He needs the strongest possible support from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Manalo serves to reassure Asean
He needs to be able to reassure the various countries of the world, the international financial and human rights institutions, and the global media that regardless of any negative impression they might have developed earlier about his government, he is determined to keep its democratic and constitutional character and orientation. In designating Foreign Undersecretary Enrique Manalo, one of our brightest lights in the foreign service, as acting foreign secretary after Yasay’s unlamented departure, DU30 should be able to say that he has taken the first step to energize our foreign relations; that he has moved to reassure our Asean allies, as a minimum, that the Asean summit would be run well. And that he is willing to do more.
But that said, many serious problems remain. The CA’s rejection of Yasay, who had been nominated to the premier Cabinet post, has raised the question among observers of who among the Cabinet members need to be confirmed, and who need not be. The usual reply, taken from the Constitution, is that those nominated as “heads of departments” or to “Cabinet positions with portfolio” need to be confirmed. Only the Vice President, if he or she is appointed to head a department, needs no confirmation.
Why is Evasco exempt from confirmation?
What would be the basis then of a Cabinet member with the otherwise innocuous title of Cabinet Secretary, but with the most powerful octopus-like tentacles extending to and from the Office of the President, the Presidential Management Staff, 18 critical anti-poverty agencies with billions of pesos in funds and massive constituencies on the ground, and the communist-oriented “Kilusang Pagbabago,” now the biggest political party embedded within the DILG structure, etc., but without having to be vetted and confirmed by the CA? Since July, we have only heard about Leoncio Evasco Jr.’s enormous powers: ex-priest, ex- NPA rebel, ex-mayor of Maribojoc, Bohol, ex-chief of staff of Mayor DU30, and ex-campaign manager of presidential candidate DU30, he is said to be the only one whom the President cannot say no to.
But we have not heard about him being submitted to the CA for confirmation. Why not?
Last week, he decided to show his fangs when he went after National Food Authority Administrator Jason Aquino for allegedly failing to comply with official decisions of the NFA council in a meeting convened exclusively by its alternate members without Evasco, the chairman, and Aquino, the vice chairman, or the Secretary of Finance and his alternate; and without proper promulgation of the unnumbered resolution adopted by the alternates. Outraged by Aquino’s alleged “defiance,” Evasco is reportedly asking the members of the council to oust Aquino from the NFA or endure his resignation as council chair. Only the President can appoint and remove the NFA administrator, but power has obviously gone to Evasco’s head. It is unaccountable power, and the best way to make it accountable is to make him earn it, by letting him go through the Cabinet confirmation process.
Will the President go for it? The next move is his.
Victory at CA, defeat in Congress
The CA’s rejection of Yasay is a victory of our adherence to the rule of law and constitutional standards in foreign affairs. Unfortunately, this victory is quickly diminished by the violation of international law, by Congress when it railroaded the death penalty bill for drug users, despite massive opposition from the churches, civic organizations, and the public. The Philippines has long committed to the abolition of the death sentence through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its Second Optional Protocol, to which it has acceded. Despite that, the House vote resulting from intimidation and coercion disregarded that commitment.
The bill now goes to the Senate where the Senate President says the solution to the drug problem is more important than the nation’s adherence to its treaty obligations. If that opinion carries the upper chamber, and the bill is passed by the two Houses, only the Supreme Court, if it reads the law on treaties correctly, could prevent our descent into a new barbarism because of a corrupt and inept justice system implementing the death penalty.
Government lawyers are reported to be burning the midnight oil trying to find ways and means of arresting efforts by certain groups to bring the drug killings to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. One knee-jerk idea is to go after bishops and priests for their outspoken opposition to the killings, and to the proposed imposition of the death penalty. It is a fool’s errand. If any case involving crimes against humanity ever gets to the ICC, it will not be simply because of what the bishops and priests have said and are saying, but because of what the international institutions and agencies have seen and are seeing in the country.
A PNP-Church Liaison Committee?
PNP Chief Bato de la Rosa seems to believe that by asking priests to join the police in their “Operation Tokhang,” the government would be putting an end to the drug killings, or the Church’s condemnation of the drug killings. The truth is simple enough. The police can stop the killings even without the Church saying anything, if they genuinely want to stop the killings. And the Church will stop condemning the killings if there are no more killings to be condemned. But if the police want the Church to be involved in solving their problem, perhaps they could propose something similar to the Church-Military Liaison Committee that monitored human rights abuses during martial law, and submit it for the consideration of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Perhaps a Police-Church Liaison Committee, if acceptable to the CBCP, could begin by exhuming the details of the 7,000 or so suspects who have been killed in the drug war since July.