BOC examiner commits diplomatic ‘faux pas,’ opens pouches meant for Japan Emperor’s visit
A serious diplomatic “faux pas” has apparently been committed by a Bureau of Customs (BOC) examiner at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) after he subjected to an unauthorized examination the diplomatic pouches consigned to the Japanese Embassy in Manila containing among others, the “sake” (Japanese wine) to be used for the welcome reception in honor of Their Majesties Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko who are scheduled to arrive in the country for a five-day state visit tomorrow.
The blunder, supposedly committed last month by NAIA Customs Examiner Pompeo Manalo who is assigned at the Pair Cargo Customs Bonded Warehouse in Pasay City, has prompted the office of Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina to order the NAIA-BOC District Office to undertake a probe on the said incident.
A diplomatic pouch is any property identified and sealed package, pouch, bag, or other container that is used to transport official correspondence, documents, and other articles intended for official use of embassies, consulates, and the offices of public international organizations, among others.
In accordance with Article 27.3 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), properly designated diplomatic pouches “shall not be opened or detained.”
Under the same Convention, any search or inspection of a properly labeled diplomatic pouch constitutes a “serious breach.” In fact, international law does not even set any limits on the permissible size, weight and quantity of diplomatic pouches, it was learned.
In the United States, the standard practice is that properly designated and handled diplomatic pouches, either physically or electronically and considers it a “serious breach” of the clear obligations of the VCDR for another country to do so, according to the website of the US State Department
Aside from the bottles of sake, which will be used at a reception to be hosted by the Japanese Ambassador to Manila in honor of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on the evening of January 28, the said diplomatic pouches also reportedly contained several official items of the Japanese Embassy and a photo album collection of President Benigno Aquino III and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It was not known if the Japanese Embassy has lodged a formal protest regarding the incident but a well-placed BOC source said the Embassy was “very disappointed” about the unwarranted examination of their cargo.
This sentiment was reportedly expressed in a text message sent to the office of Commissioner Lina.
“This is the first time that it happened to them so the Embassy was very disappointed,” a source at the Customs told the Manila Bulletin.
Sources said a staff at the Japanese Embassy who was present during the incident reportedly tried to dissuade Manalo from opening the pouches as they were already covered by a certificate from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and other relevant documentation necessitated for the release.
According to DFA Spokesperson Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, aside from the DFA certificate, the other requirement needed for a cargo to be designated as a diplomatic pouch is a Customs clearance.
When asked by his superiors at the BOC-NAIA about the incident, Manalo reportedly claimed that he was merely acting on orders of his immediate boss Emily Balatbat, chief of the BOC Composite Unit at the Pair Cargo.
However, a Customs functionary who is privy to the incident dismissed Manalo’s claim that he merely acted on orders of his superiors. “Customs examiners and appraisers are aware of the standard procedure in handling diplomatic pouches,” the source explained.
The same source insisted that aside from its diplomatic nature, no examination is warranted for that particular cargo since “there was no prior alert, no extraordinary event or reason to justify the examination.”
As an offshoot, Lina ordered Balatbat to explain in writing as to how and why the embarrassing incident happened.
It was learned that the diplomatic pouch was later released.
The Philippine government is looking forward to the historic five-day state visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to the country this week.
Japan is considered one of the country’s steadfast partners and friends given its contributions to development and the Mindanao peace process, among others, according to Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
“President Aquino will lead the Filipino government and people in welcoming Their Majesties Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan as they commence their visit to the Philippines on Tuesday, 26 January,” Coloma said.
The state visit of the royal couple from January 26 to 30 coincides with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Philippines this year, Coloma said.
“President Aquino has acknowledged that in Japan and its people ‘we have found steadfast partners and friends in the truest sense of the word’ as concretely manifested by its being the largest contributor of official development assistance (ODA) to the Philippines,” he said.
Coloma also cited that Japan is also one of the leading international advocates of the peace process in Mindanao. “Moreover, Japan has provided significant assistance to the Philippines in terms of improving urban transportation and in providing relief to calamity victims,” he added.
Coloma also shared President Aquino’s personal encounter with the Emperor Akihito’s father, the late Emperor Showa.
“The President recalls that when he accompanied his mother, then President Aquino, during her visit to Japan in 1986, Emperor Akihito’s father, the late Emperor Showa, even conversed with him and advised him to take care of his parents,” he said.
Japan, according to Aquino, was also one of the countries that provided robust support to the Philippines’ newly reclaimed democracy 30 years ago.
It will be the first official visit by a Japanese Emperor to the Philippines. The Emperor and Empress visited Manila in 1962 when they were still Crown Prince and Crown Princess.
Emperor Akihito travels to the Philippines this week to visit World War II memorials, his latest pacifist pilgrimage which appears increasingly at odds with the government’s rightward drift.
Akihito, 82, has made honoring Japanese and non-Japanese who died in the conflict a touchstone of his near three-decade reign – known as Heisei, or “achieving peace” – and now in its twilight.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, wants to revise Japan’s war-renouncing “peace constitution”, seeing it as an embarrassing remnant of its WWII defeat and occupation by the United States.
In the Philippines, which saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, Akihito and Empress Michiko will visit the national Heroes’ Cemetery and a memorial for Japanese war dead during a five day visit starting Tuesday.
“The emperor has been very consistent with the fact that Japan is apologetic about their aggression,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
Such contrition, decades of Japanese economic aid and the Philippines’ search for allies in a maritime dispute with increasingly powerful China have made Abe’s nationalist lurch – which includes strengthening his military — palatable in Manila.