'No excuse not to pursue fine for Tubbataha damage'
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Politics and questions of state immunity should not stop the Philippines from pursuing US government compensation for the damage caused by the Tubbataha Reefs grounding a year ago.
This was the demand of a petition filed by a group led by Puerto Princesa Bishop Pedro Arigo before the Supreme Court a day before the anniversary of the grounding of a US Navy ship into UNESCO Heritage Site Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Sulu Sea.
"Customary law and conventional international environmental law leave no room for questions of State immunity or jurisdiction. Nor is the case a political question subject to inaction by the Executive Department," according to the petition filed on Thursday, January 16.
The petition also called for Temporary Environmental Protection Orders (TEPOs) to prevent more damage to marine sanctuaries by US vessels.
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), US ships continue to make port calls in the Philippines, threatening sensitive marine resources in the area.
Despite saying it is "prepared to provide appropriate compensation" for the damage, the US has not paid the P58 million fine slapped by the Philippine government.
When the USS Guardian rammed into the world-famous marine park and protected area on January 17, 2013, it obliterated around 2,345.67 square meters of the reef.
But advocates say the damage goes beyond pulverized corals. The grounding also adversely affected the livelihood of fishermen who depend on the reef's abundant natural resources.
Moving past the SC case
In April that year, Arigo and company filed a petition before the Supreme Court demanding compensation and the prosecution of USS Guardian officials.
The pending case has been cited by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as the reason why ongoing talks with the US government on the issue were called off.
Communications Secretary Herminio Colomo Jr on Thursday echoed the DFA.
He said that after the US signified its willingness to pay the fine, "a Writ of Kalikasan was issued, requiring submissions to the Supreme Court, thereby resulting in the deferment of the resolution of the compensation issue."
But the new petition said that the pending SC case should not be an excuse to stop pursuing compensation. Greater laws compel the US to give compensation, it said.
The Polluter Pays Principle, for example, under international environmental law establishes that "the US Respondents must pay for the environmental restoration and reparation at the sites already damaged" and "they must assume responsibility for future environmental damage in the Philippines," according to the petition.
International agreements like the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment – both United Nations covenants – assert that it is the duty of all countries to avoid transboundary harm, or inflicting environmental harm to other nations or territories.
Revisit the Visiting Forces Agreement
Petitioners also asked the SC to stop US ships from docking into Philippine ports or conducting military exercises unless the VFA is modified to contain environmental guidelines and mechanisms to punish violators.
Guidelines should include the restriction of military exercises in areas with abundant marine reserves, a 24-kilometer safety zone from any blast or blast radius and responsive measures in case of environmental damage.
Philippine officials should actively pursue compensation and begin administrative and criminal proceedings against the US respondents, said the petition. The respondents include Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr, among others.
Heads must roll
Environmental group Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment also condemned "the negligence and willful silence of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg" over the unpaid compensation.
The group went as far as calling for Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario's resignation "not only for his gross negligence over the pursuit of compensation for the Tubbataha Reef grounding, but for actively serving as an apologist for the grave environmental crimes of US troops in the country."
Anything less than decisive action is a form of surrender, wrote the petitioners.
If the USS Guardian is allowed to get away with the damage "then the Republic of the Philippines is sending a message to the world that any visiting State, clandestine entry or not, may be at liberty to cast aside internationally wrongful acts." – Rappler.com