Duterte admin asked to heed SC order protecting PH reefs
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials must enforce the Supreme Court’s writ of kalikasan order directing them to protect and rehabilitate the marine environment in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Saturday.
Failure to heed the special order, which covers three-Philippine-claimed reefs in the disputed waters, could prompt the high court to hold the Duterte administration in contempt, according to a maritime law expert.
“The recent writ of kalikasan [ordered] by the Supreme Court practically imposes an obligation on our government to enforce the July 12, 2016 arbitral ruling,” Del Rosario said, referring to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidating China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
In issuing the protection order on Friday, the Supreme Court granted the petition of a group of Palawan fisherfolk and Zambales residents seeking to prevent environmental law violations in the disputed waters.
The writ covers Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ in the South China Sea.
Palace respects court orders
The petitioners from Palawan and Zambales were represented by lawyers from the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
The Supreme Court also ordered Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol and other officials to respond to its decision.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo on Saturday said Malacañang always respected orders of the judiciary, but he disagreed with the insinuation that the administration was not doing anything to protect the environment.
“We take exception, however, to the contention that there has been inaction on the part of the administration with regard to the environmental concerns brought about by Chinese activities in the contested areas,” Panelo said.
“Our coast guard as well as other government agencies are performing their task in securing the subject of the writ,” he added.
Del Rosario, who led the country’s team in arguing its case in the arbitral tribunal in The Hague, said the high court order went along with recent surveys that showed nearly nine of out of 10 Filipinos wanted the government “to claim what is ours” in the South China Sea.
“With the latest development … our people are now supported by the highest court of the land. With the Supreme Court standing with our people, our partners, allies and friends would no doubt like to know if our country finally stands as one,” said Del Rosario, chair of the board of trustees of the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the writ of kalikasan was “enforceable,” though it was up to the government to take action.
Panatag Shoal is part of Masinloc, Zambales, while Ayungin Shoal and Panganiban Reef are part of the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan.
China has built a military-grade facility on Panganiban Reef, controlled access to Panatag Shoal and surrounded Ayungin Shoal with coast guard vessels despite the presence there of the BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippine Navy deliberately ran aground in 1999 to mark the country’s claim to the reef.
Consequences of defiance
Asked about possible consequences if the Duterte administration defied the Supreme Court’s directive, Batongbacal said it could be held civilly or criminally liable.
“If the Palace refuses to report and act, then the executive [department] could be declared in contempt of court, and officials may become liable for civil or criminal prosecution,” he said.
Batongbacal said the government’s refusal to implement the Supreme Court order “could lead to a legal and constitutional crisis.”
“If the government refuses to act against Chinese fishermen despite orders of the court … the sitting administration’s legitimacy before the eyes of the people could also be seriously undermined,” he added.
Introduced by the Supreme Court under then Chief Justice Reynato Puno in 2010, the writ of kalikasan is a legal remedy that provides protection of one’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.
It invokes Section 16, Article II of the Constitution, which states the “state shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology.”
Part of the power of the writ, Batongbacal said, is that it “forces” the Duterte administration to report what it has actually done so far on the issue.
If the government’s actions are deemed unsatisfactory, the writ also compels it to take action to remedy the situation and protect the fishermen’s rights and interests.
Batongbacal said that while the writ was enforceable, it did not guarantee that Chinese fishermen would be forced to vacate Philippine waters.
“The writ is enforceable but it is directed [at] the government, not Chinese fishers. It requires the government to take action to enforce Philippine law and report thereon,” he said.
Solidifying PH claim
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said the Supreme Court’s order would strengthen the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea.
“It would solidify our claim and compel our authorities to do what they have to do,” Trillanes said in a radio interview.
But Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the administration was bent on protecting the marine environment in these areas anyway.
Party-list group Bayan Muna on Saturday urged the government to increase its presence in the West Philippine Sea.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard should conduct more patrols in areas covered by the writ.
“With the Supreme Court ruling, we hope that the Coast Guard and the Navy would have more patrols around these areas and protect not just the reefs but our fisherfolk as well,” he said.
Neri Colmenares, Bayan Muna chair and Makabayan senatorial candidate, described the Supreme Court decision as a “positive development.” —WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON AND LEILA B. SALAVERRIA
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