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Philippine Pull-out in the Coalition Forces in Iraq to Save Angelo de la Cruz

by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

The Australian National University

 

The last of the Australian contingent to the war effort ended when seventeen soldiers returned home from Iraq on August 6, 2011. It was a year after President Barack Obama withdrew  U.S.combat troops from Iraq that ended the 7 ½ year war which President George W. Bush started on March 20, 2003 through the  U.S.-led multinational coalition. The casus belli was the belief that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that threatened the West.  Based on evidence, the world knows  that Iraq did not have an arsenal of WMD and that the war, which left 4,415 American soldiers and more than a hundred thousand Iraqis dead, was aimed at regime change in Iraq.

The  Philippines was also part of the U.S. led “coalition of the willing.” However, compared with other coalition members, the Philippines  pulled-out its 51- man  humanitarian contingent in Iraq in July 2004,  days ahead of schedule  in a last-ditch effort to save the life of Filipino truck driver Angelo dela Cruz who was threatened with beheading by the so-called Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin Al-Weleed Corps if the government did pay ransom and did not pull-out its troops from Iraq.

Foreign Secretary Delia Albert announced the early pull-out of the Filipino troops from Iraq.  Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, a veteran career diplomat, who also negotiated the release of another OFW Robert Tarongoy from his Iraqi kidnappers in 2005, led the Iraq Crisis Team. The government decision angered the U.S. and its allies. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said  that  “I don’t want to be harsh on a friend, but it is a mistake and it won’t buy them immunity”.

Pulling out from the US-led “Coalition of the willing[1]

In the Philippines, foreign policy emanates from the President. The case of Dela Cruz is noteworthy because of the decision of President Gloria M. Arroyo to withdraw from the coalition was seen as the Philippine abnegation of its commitment with a long-time ally, the United States which it shares a common history being a former colonial master. The Philippine relations with the U.S. was at its peak because it was one the first countries who supported the U.S. in its decision to go to war in Iraq. It warmed the relations of the nations whose relationship cooled after the Philippine Senate decided not to renew the Philippine-U.S. Bases Agreement in 1991.

The Philippine government was torn between saving Dela Cruz or keeping with its commitments with the coalition. The hostage taking of Dela Cruz gripped the nation with distress by the impending beheading of Dela Cruz by his captors. The government was reminded of the public furor  when a Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, was hanged in 1995 raising the people’s awareness of the sufferings of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) without government’s full  support. Again, as in the case of previous people power revolts in the Philippines that toppled the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos in 1996 and the presidency of Joseph Estrada in 2001, the government  was again brought down to its knees by a potential people power demonstrations.

President  Arroyo defended her position from criticisms from coalition forces Iraq by affirming that saving lives of OFWs was more important to her than international acclaim and affirmed that the country’s “foreign policy is to defend national interests, including the safety of OFWs.”[2]  She said that she made the force to agree with the kidnappers to prevent Filipinos abroad, particularly the large numbers of OFWs in the Middle East, from being the targets of terrorism or held hostage by insurgents. Arroyo’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA)  in July 2004 came on the heels Dela Cruz’s release and return to the Philippines. She used the SONA as an opportunity to announce a new policy direction she called“mamamayan muna” or “people first”.

The President’s decision calmed down the Filipino public. There were sectors, particularly members of the coalition, who were angered by her decision. In the Philippines, many welcomed it. For example, in a forum organised by the University of the Philippines on 12 August 2004 titled “Hostaged? Philippine Foreign Policy after Angelo de la Cruz”, retired Ambassador Nelson Lavina who wrote a paper entitled “Angelo and Philippine Foreign Policy–A Post-Mortem”, said:

  “the recent announcement by the Department of Foreign Affairs that protection of contract workers is now the third pillar of Philippine foreign policy is very much welcome. It is only now, during the term of Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert that the foreign policy postulating protection of Filipino contract workers is in effect.”[3]

In the same forum, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Gilbert Asuque defended the President’s decision saying that:

“The President was guided on deciding this issue by existing policies of the Philippine government, which is the Constitution. The Constitution says that the president, the government, is bound to protect the Filipino people. The Department of Foreign Affairs and, of course, the government will have to assist Filipinos in distress. So, the President of the Philippines was in fact implementing such policy.”[4]

Travel Ban and OFWs in Iraq

As a result of the kidnapping of OFW Angelo dela Cruz, the Philippine travel and deployment ban to Iraq became compulsory in July 2004.  Owing to the long-term unstable security in Iraq, the Philippine government has maintained the deployment ban in Iraq.[5]   Until 2010, there were still about 6,000 OFWs working for US Contractors despite the ongoing ban.[6]   Today, there are calls from OFWs, including Dela Cruz, who have returned to his native province Pampanga, for the government to lift the ban after President Obama’s promise of U.S. pull-out after the March presidential election and infrastructure development taking place in Iraq that would open up jobs for OFWs.[7]

Conclusion

The Philippine decision to pull-out its troops  to save a Filipino life is highly contentious and does not lend itself to easy answers. Many of what critics have said are also worthy of examination. What was clear in the Dela Cruz hostage case was that   Presidential decisions in the Philippines were constrained by the high political demands of the Filipino public to protect OFWs, which number to more than 5 million all over the world.  The choice between pulling-out its troops from the U.S. coalition and saving a human life was a turning point in the Philippine government’s direction to enforce its mandate to protect OFWs.


[1] For a discussion on  Philippine foreign policy after the release of Angelo dela Cruz and the  withdrawal of the Philippines from its membership in the “coalition of the willing” read “Proceedings”, (paper presented at the A Public Forum: Hostaged? Philippine Foreign Policy After Angelo dela Cruz

University of the Philippines, 2004 ).

[2] “Summary: President Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address from 2001-2008,” GMA News, http://www.gmanews.tv/100days/story/168440/summary-president-arroyos-state-of-the-nation-address-from-2001-2008.

[3] “Proceedings.” p.136.

[4] Ibid. p.138.

[5] The Migrant Workers Act (R.A. 8042 of 1995 as amended by R.A. 10022 of 2010) mandates that the government hold fast to stringent guidelines in allowing the employment of OFWs to other countries, and impose heavy penalties on government officials who agree to deploy migrant workers without guarantees required by law.[5]

[6] The travel ban imposed by the Philippine government was supported by the US when US Air Force Colonel Richard Nolan of Central Command’s Contracting Command stated in a memorandum dated July 20, 2010 that contractors who employed people from countries which prohibits work and travel to Iraq, including about 6,000 from the Philippines, must return them home. See  Veronica Uy, “US orders pullout of OFWs in Iraq by August 9,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 27,2010 2010.

[7] Roli Talampas, “Angelo dela Cruz: ‘It’s time to lift the Iraq ban’,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 7, 2011.

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