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Jurisprudence: G.R. No. 151445 April 11, 2002


G.R. No. 151445      April 11, 2002

ARTHUR D. LIM and PAULINO R. ERSANDO, petitioners,
HONORABLE EXECUTIVE SECRETARY as alter ego of HER EXCELLENCEY GLORIA MACAPAGAL-ARROYO, and HONORABLE ANGELO REYES in his capacity as Secretary of National Defense, respondents.


SANLAKAS and PARTIDO NG MANGGAGAWA, petitioners-intervenors,

This case involves a petition for certiorari and prohibition as well as a petition-in-intervention, praying that respondents be restrained from proceeding with the so-called "Balikatan 02-1" and that after due notice and hearing, that judgment be rendered issuing a permanent writ of injunction and/or prohibition against the deployment of U.S. troops in Basilan and Mindanao for being illegal and in violation of the Constitution.

The facts are as follows:

Beginning January of this year 2002, personnel from the armed forces of the United States of America started arriving in Mindanao to take part, in conjunction with the Philippine military, in "Balikatan 02-1." These so-called "Balikatan" exercises are the largest combined training operations involving Filipino and American troops. In theory, they are a simulation of joint military maneuvers pursuant to the Mutual Defense Treaty, a bilateral defense agreement entered into by the Philippines and the United States in 1951.

Prior to the year 2002, the last "Balikatan" was held in 1995. This was due to the paucity of any formal agreement relative to the treatment of United States personnel visiting the Philippines. In the meantime, the respective governments of the two countries agreed to hold joint exercises on a reduced scale. The lack of consensus was eventually cured when the two nations concluded the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1999.

The entry of American troops into Philippine soil is proximately rooted in the international anti-terrorism campaign declared by President George W. Bush in reaction to the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001. On that day, three (3) commercial aircrafts were hijacked, flown and smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. by terrorists with alleged links to the al-Qaeda ("the Base"), a Muslim extremist organization headed by the infamous Osama bin Laden. Of no comparable historical parallels, these acts caused billions of dollars worth of destruction of property and incalculable loss of hundreds of lives.

On February 1, 2002, petitioners Arthur D. Lim and Paulino P. Ersando filed this petition for certiorari and prohibition, attacking the constitutionality of the joint exercise. They were joined subsequently by SANLAKAS and PARTIDO NG MANGGAGAWA, both party-list organizations, who filed a petition-in-intervention on February 11, 2002.

Lim and Ersando filed suit in their capacities as citizens, lawyers and taxpayers. SANLAKAS and PARTIDO, on the other hand, aver that certain members of their organization are residents of Zamboanga and Sulu, and hence will be directly affected by the operations being conducted in Mindanao. They likewise pray for a relaxation on the rules relative to locus standi citing the unprecedented importance of the issue involved.

On February 71 2002 the Senate conducted a hearing on the "Balikatan" exercise wherein Vice-President Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr., who is concurrently Secretary of Foreign Affairs, presented the Draft Terms of Reference (TOR). Five days later, he approved the TOR, which we quote hereunder:


1. The Exercise shall be consistent with the Philippine Constitution and all its activities shall be in consonance with the laws of the land and the provisions of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

2. The conduct of this training Exercise is in accordance with pertinent United Nations resolutions against global terrorism as understood by the respective parties.

3. No permanent US basing and support facilities shall be established. Temporary structures such as those for troop billeting, classroom instruction and messing may be set up for use by RP and US Forces during the Exercise.

4. The Exercise shall be implemented jointly by RP and US Exercise Co-Directors under the authority of the Chief of Staff, AFP. In no instance will US Forces operate independently during field training exercises (FTX). AFP and US Unit Commanders will retain command over their respective forces under the overall authority of the Exercise Co-Directors. RP and US participants shall comply with operational instructions of the AFP during the FTX.

5. The exercise shall be conducted and completed within a period of not more than six months, with the projected participation of 660 US personnel and 3,800 RP Forces. The Chief of Staff, AFP shall direct the Exercise Co-Directors to wind up and terminate the Exercise and other activities within the six month Exercise period.

6. The Exercise is a mutual counter-terrorism advising, assisting and training Exercise relative to Philippine efforts against the ASG, and will be conducted on the Island of Basilan. Further advising, assisting and training exercises shall be conducted in Malagutay and the Zamboanga area. Related activities in Cebu will be for support of the Exercise.

7. Only 160 US Forces organized in 12-man Special Forces Teams shall be deployed with AFP field, commanders. The US teams shall remain at the Battalion Headquarters and, when approved, Company Tactical headquarters where they can observe and assess the performance of the AFP Forces.

8. US exercise participants shall not engage in combat, without prejudice to their right of self-defense.

9. These terms of Reference are for purposes of this Exercise only and do not create additional legal obligations between the US Government and the Republic of the Philippines.



a. The Exercise shall involve the conduct of mutual military assisting, advising and training of RP and US Forces with the primary objective of enhancing the operational capabilities of both forces to combat terrorism.

b. At no time shall US Forces operate independently within RP territory.

c. Flight plans of all aircraft involved in the exercise will comply with the local air traffic regulations.


a. RP and US participants shall be given a country and area briefing at the start of the Exercise. This briefing shall acquaint US Forces on the culture and sensitivities of the Filipinos and the provisions of the VF A. The briefing shall also promote the full cooperation on the part of the RP and US participants for the successful conduct of the Exercise.

b. RP and US participating forces may share, in accordance with their respective laws and regulations, in the use of their resources, equipment and other assets. They will use their respective logistics channels.

c. Medical evaluation shall be jointly planned and executed utilizing RP and US assets and resources.

d. Legal liaison officers from each respective party shall be appointed by the Exercise Directors.


a. Combined RP-US Information Bureaus shall be established at the Exercise Directorate in Zamboanga City and at GHQ, AFP in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

b. Local media relations will be the concern of the AFP and all public affairs guidelines shall be jointly developed by RP and US Forces.

c. Socio-Economic Assistance Projects shall be planned and executed jointly by RP and US Forces in accordance with their respective laws and regulations, and in consultation with community and local government officials.

Contemporaneously, Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Minerva Jean A. Falcon and United States Charge d' Affaires Robert Fitts signed the Agreed Minutes of the discussion between the Vice-President and Assistant Secretary Kelly.

Petitioners Lim and Ersando present the following arguments:






Substantially the same points are advanced by petitioners SANLAKAS and PARTIDO.

In his Comment, the Solicitor General points to infirmities in the petitions regarding, inter alia, Lim and Ersando's standing to file suit, the prematurity of the action, as well as the impropriety of availing of certiorari to ascertain a question of fact. Anent their locus standi, the Solicitor General argues that first, they may not file suit in their capacities as, taxpayers inasmuch as it has not been shown that "Balikatan 02-1 " involves the exercise of Congress' taxing or spending powers. Second, their being lawyers does not invest them with sufficient personality to initiate the case, citing our ruling in Integrated Bar of the Philippines v. Zamora. Third, Lim and Ersando have failed to demonstrate the requisite showing of direct personal injury. We agree.

It is also contended that the petitioners are indulging in speculation. The Solicitor General is of the view that since the Terms of Reference are clear as to the extent and duration of "Balikatan 02-1," the issues raised by petitioners are premature, as they are based only on a fear of future violation of the Terms of Reference. Even petitioners' resort to a special civil action for certiorari is assailed on the ground that the writ may only issue on the basis of established facts.

Apart from these threshold issues, the Solicitor General claims that there is actually no question of constitutionality involved. The true object of the instant suit, it is said, is to obtain an interpretation of the VFA. The Solicitor General asks that we accord due deference to the executive determination that "Balikatan 02-1" is covered by the VFA, considering the President's monopoly in the field of foreign relations and her role as commander-in-chief of the Philippine armed forces.

Given the primordial importance of the issue involved, it will suffice to reiterate our view on this point in a related case:

Notwithstanding, in view of the paramount importance and the constitutional significance of the issues raised in the petitions, this Court, in the exercise of its sound discretion, brushes aside the procedural barrier and takes cognizance of the petitions, as we have done in the early Emergency Powers Cases, where we had occasion to rule:

'x x x ordinary citizens and taxpayers were allowed to question the constitutionality of several executive orders issued by President Quirino although they were involving only an indirect and general interest shared in common with the public. The Court dismissed the objection that they were not proper parties and ruled that 'transcendental importance to the public of these cases demands that they be settled promptly and definitely, brushing aside, if we must, technicalities of procedure.' We have since then applied the exception in many other cases. [citation omitted]

This principle was reiterated in the subsequent cases of Gonzales vs. COMELEC, Daza vs. Singson, and Basco vs. Phil, Amusement and Gaming Corporation, where we emphatically held:

Considering however the importance to the public of the case at bar, and in keeping with the Court's duty, under the 1987 Constitution, to determine whether or not the other branches of the government have kept themselves within the limits of the Constitution and the laws that they have not abused the discretion given to them, the Court has brushed aside technicalities of procedure and has taken cognizance of this petition. xxx'

Again, in the more recent case of Kilosbayan vs. Guingona, Jr., this Court ruled that in cases of transcendental importance, the Court may relax the standing requirements and allow a suit to prosper even where there is no direct injury to the party claiming the right of judicial review.

Although courts generally avoid having to decide a constitutional question based on the doctrine of separation of powers, which enjoins upon the department of the government a becoming respect for each other's act, this Court nevertheless resolves to take cognizance of the instant petition.

Hence, we treat with similar dispatch the general objection to the supposed prematurity of the action. At any rate, petitioners' concerns on the lack of any specific regulation on the latitude of activity US personnel may undertake and the duration of their stay has been addressed in the Terms of Reference.

The holding of "Balikatan 02-1" must be studied in the framework of the treaty antecedents to which the Philippines bound itself. The first of these is the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT, for brevity). The MDT has been described as the "core" of the defense relationship between the Philippines and its traditional ally, the United States. Its aim is to enhance the strategic and technological capabilities of our armed forces through joint training with its American counterparts; the "Balikatan" is the largest such training exercise directly supporting the MDT's objectives. It is this treaty to which the VFA adverts and the obligations thereunder which it seeks to reaffirm.

The lapse of the US-Philippine Bases Agreement in 1992 and the decision not to renew it created a vacuum in US-Philippine defense relations, that is, until it was replaced by the Visiting Forces Agreement. It should be recalled that on October 10, 2000, by a vote of eleven to three, this Court upheld the validity of the VFA. The V FA provides the "regulatory mechanism" by which "United States military and civilian personnel [may visit] temporarily in the Philippines in connection with activities approved by the Philippine Government." It contains provisions relative to entry and departure of American personnel, driving and vehicle registration, criminal jurisdiction, claims, importation and exportation, movement of vessels and aircraft, as well as the duration of the agreement and its termination. It is the VFA which gives continued relevance to the MDT despite the passage of years. Its primary goal is to facilitate the promotion of optimal cooperation between American and Philippine military forces in the event of an attack by a common foe.

The first question that should be addressed is whether "Balikatan 02-1" is covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement. To resolve this, it is necessary to refer to the VFA itself: Not much help can be had therefrom, unfortunately, since the terminology employed is itself the source of the problem. The VFA permits United States personnel to engage, on an impermanent basis, in "activities," the exact meaning of which was left undefined. The expression is ambiguous, permitting a wide scope of undertakings subject only to the approval of the Philippine government. The sole encumbrance placed on its definition is couched in the negative, in that United States personnel must "abstain from any activity inconsistent with the spirit of this agreement, and in particular, from any political activity." All other activities, in other words, are fair game.

We are not left completely unaided, however. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which contains provisos governing interpretations of international agreements, state:


Article 31

General rule of interpretation

1. A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith ill accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the tenus of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.

2. The context for the purpose of the interpretation of a treaty shall comprise, in addition to the text, including its preamble and annexes:

(a) any agreement relating to the treaty which was made between all the parties in connection with the conclusion of the treaty;

(b) any instrument which was made by one or more parties in connection with the conclusion of the treaty and accepted by the other parties as an instrument related to the party .

3. There shall be taken into account, together with the context:

(a) any subsequent agreement between the parties regarding the interpretation of the treaty or the application of its provisions;

(b) any subsequent practice in the application of the treaty which establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation;

(c) any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties.

4. A special meaning shall be given to a term if it is established that the parties so intended.

Article 32

Supplementary means of interpretation

Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31 :

(a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or

(b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd unreasonable.

It is clear from the foregoing that the cardinal rule of interpretation must involve an examination of the text, which is presumed to verbalize the parties' intentions. The Convention likewise dictates what may be used as aids to deduce the meaning of terms, which it refers to as the context of the treaty, as well as other elements may be taken into account alongside the aforesaid context. As explained by a writer on the Convention,

[t]he Commission's proposals (which were adopted virtually without change by the conference and are now reflected in Articles 31 and 32 of the Convention) were clearly based on the view that the text of a treaty must be presumed to be the authentic expression of the intentions of the parties; the Commission accordingly came down firmly in favour of the view that 'the starting point of interpretation is the elucidation of the meaning of the text, not an investigation ab initio into the intentions of the parties'. This is not to say that the travauxpreparatoires of a treaty , or the circumstances of its conclusion, are relegated to a subordinate, and wholly ineffective, role. As Professor Briggs points out, no rigid temporal prohibition on resort to travaux preparatoires of a treaty was intended by the use of the phrase 'supplementary means of interpretation' in what is now Article 32 of the Vienna Convention. The distinction between the general rule of interpretation and the supplementary means of interpretation is intended rather to ensure that the supplementary means do not constitute an alternative, autonomous method of interpretation divorced from the general rule.

The Terms of Reference rightly fall within the context of the VFA.

After studied reflection, it appeared farfetched that the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the word  “activities" arose from accident. In our view, it was deliberately made that way to give both parties a certain leeway in negotiation. In this manner, visiting US forces may sojourn in Philippine territory for purposes other than military. As conceived, the joint exercises may include training on new techniques of patrol and surveillance to protect the nation's marine resources, sea search-and-rescue operations to assist vessels in distress, disaster relief operations, civic action projects such as the building of school houses, medical and humanitarian missions, and the like.

Under these auspices, the VFA gives legitimacy to the current Balikatan exercises. It is only logical to assume that “Balikatan 02-1," a "mutual anti- terrorism advising, assisting and training exercise," falls under the umbrella of sanctioned or allowable activities in the context of the agreement. Both the history and intent of the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA support the conclusion that combat-related activities -as opposed to combat itself -such as the one subject of the instant petition, are indeed authorized.

That is not the end of the matter, though. Granted that "Balikatan 02-1" is permitted under the terms of the VFA, what may US forces legitimately do in furtherance of their aim to provide advice, assistance and training in the global effort against terrorism? Differently phrased, may American troops actually engage in combat in Philippine territory? The Terms of Reference are explicit enough. Paragraph 8 of section I stipulates that US exercise participants may not engage in combat "except in self-defense." We wryly note that this sentiment is admirable in the abstract but difficult in implementation. The target of "Balikatan 02-1" the Abu Sayyaf, cannot reasonably be expected to sit idly while the battle is brought to their very doorstep. They cannot be expected to pick and choose their targets for they will not have the luxury of doing so. We state this point if only to signify our awareness that the parties straddle a fine line, observing the honored legal maxim "Nemo potest facere per alium quod non potest facere per directum." The indirect violation is actually petitioners' worry, that in reality, "Balikatan 02-1" is actually a war principally conducted by the United States government, and that the provision on self-defense serves only as camouflage to conceal the true nature of the exercise. A clear pronouncement on this matter thereby becomes crucial.

In our considered opinion, neither the MDT nor the VFA allow foreign troops to engage in an offensive war on Philippine territory. We bear in mind the salutary proscription stated in the Charter of the United Nations, to wit:

Article 2

The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

In the same manner, both the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, as in all other treaties and international agreements to which the Philippines is a party, must be read in the context of the 1987 Constitution. In particular, the Mutual Defense Treaty was concluded way before the present Charter, though it nevertheless remains in effect as a valid source of international obligation. The present Constitution contains key provisions useful in determining the extent to which foreign military troops are allowed in Philippine territory. Thus, in the Declaration of Principles and State Policies, it is provided that:

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

SEC. 2. The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation, and amity with all nations.

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

SEC. 7. The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self- determination.

SEC. 8. The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in the country.

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

The Constitution also regulates the foreign relations powers of the Chief Executive when it provides that "[n]o treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate." Even more pointedly, the Transitory Provisions state:

Sec. 25. After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning Military Bases, foreign military bases, troops or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state.

The aforequoted provisions betray a marked antipathy towards foreign military presence in the country, or of foreign influence in general. Hence, foreign troops are allowed entry into the Philippines only by way of direct exception. Conflict arises then between the fundamental law and our obligations arising from international agreements.

A rather recent formulation of the relation of international law vis-a-vis municipal law was expressed in Philip Morris, Inc. v. Court of Appeals, to wit:

xxx Withal, the fact that international law has been made part of the law of the land does not by any means imply the primacy of international law over national law in the municipal sphere. Under the doctrine of incorporation as applied in most countries, rules of international law are given a standing equal, not superior, to national legislation.

This is not exactly helpful in solving the problem at hand since in trying to find a middle ground, it favors neither one law nor the other, which only leaves the hapless seeker with an unsolved dilemma. Other more traditional approaches may offer valuable insights.

From the perspective of public international law, a treaty is favored over municipal law pursuant to the principle of pacta sunt servanda. Hence, "[e]very treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith." Further, a party to a treaty is not allowed to "invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty."

Our Constitution espouses the opposing view. Witness our jurisdiction as I stated in section 5 of Article VIII:

The Supreme Court shall have the following powers:

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

(2) Review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm on appeal or certiorari, as the law or the Rules of Court may provide, final judgments and order of lower courts in:

(A) All cases in which the constitutionality or validity of any treaty, international or executive agreement, law, presidential decree, proclamation, order, instruction, ordinance, or regulation is in question.

xxx      xxx      xxx      xxx

In Ichong v. Hernandez, we ruled that the provisions of a treaty are always subject to qualification or amendment by a subsequent law, or that it is subject to the police power of the State. In Gonzales v. Hechanova,

xxx As regards the question whether an international agreement may be invalidated by our courts, suffice it to say that the Constitution of the Philippines has clearly settled it in the affirmative, by providing, in Section 2 of Article VIII thereof, that the Supreme Court may not be deprived "of its jurisdiction to review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm on appeal, certiorari, or writ of error as the law or the rules of court may provide, final judgments and decrees of inferior courts in All cases in which the constitutionality or validity of any treaty, law, ordinance, or executive order or regulation is in question." In other words, our Constitution authorizes the nullification of a treaty, not only when it conflicts with the fundamental law, but, also, when it runs counter to an act of Congress.

The foregoing premises leave us no doubt that US forces are prohibited / from engaging in an offensive war on Philippine territory.

Yet a nagging question remains: are American troops actively engaged in combat alongside Filipino soldiers under the guise of an alleged training and assistance exercise? Contrary to what petitioners would have us do, we cannot take judicial notice of the events transpiring down south, as reported from the saturation coverage of the media. As a rule, we do not take cognizance of newspaper or electronic reports per se, not because of any issue as to their truth, accuracy, or impartiality, but for the simple reason that facts must be established in accordance with the rules of evidence. As a result, we cannot accept, in the absence of concrete proof, petitioners' allegation that the Arroyo government is engaged in "doublespeak" in trying to pass off as a mere training exercise an offensive effort by foreign troops on native soil. The petitions invite us to speculate on what is really happening in Mindanao, to issue and make factual findings on matters well beyond our immediate perception, and this we are understandably loath to do.

It is all too apparent that the determination thereof involves basically a question of fact. On this point, we must concur with the Solicitor General that the present subject matter is not a fit topic for a special civil action for certiorari. We have held in too many instances that questions of fact are not entertained in such a remedy. The sole object of the writ is to correct errors of jurisdiction or grave abuse of discretion: The phrase "grave abuse of discretion" has a precise meaning in law, denoting abuse of discretion "too patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of a positive duty, or a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined or act in contemplation of law, or where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion and personal hostility."

In this connection, it will not be amiss to add that the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts.

Under the expanded concept of judicial power under the Constitution, courts are charged with the duty "to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government." From the facts obtaining, we find that the holding of "Balikatan 02-1" joint military exercise has not intruded into that penumbra of error that would otherwise call for correction on our part. In other words, respondents in the case at bar have not committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.

WHEREFORE, the petition and the petition-in-intervention are hereby DISMISSED without prejudice to the filing of a new petition sufficient in form and substance in the proper Regional Trial Court.


Bellosillo, Melo, Mendoza, Quisumbing, Carpio, JJ., concur.

Kapunan, dissenting opinion.

Ynares-Santiago, join the dissenting opinion.

Panganiban, separate opinion.

Davide., Jr., C.J., Puno, Sandoval-Gutierrez, join the main and separate opinion of J. Panganiban.