US pressed to issue formal apology over Tubbataha Reef damage

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03:14 PM January 21st, 2013

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By: Karen Boncocan, January 21st, 2013 03:14 PM

REEFS ON THE ROCKS A diver observes a sleeping shark on a ledge at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Made up of two atolls, Tubbataha’s vertiginous walls are home to 12 species of sharks. Overfished because of the sharks’ valuable fins, Tubbataha offers one of the last guaranteed shark dives in the world. Although protected year-round by armed rangers who are stationed in two-month shifts, the reefs were defenseless against the rude intrusion of a US minesweeper three days ago when it ran aground in the Unesco-named World Heritage Site. YVETTE LEE/CONTRIBUTOR

MANILA, Philippines — The United States should issue a formal apology for the damage caused by the US Navy’s minesweeper to the Tubbataha Reef, former senator Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri said on Monday.

“I am asking them to make a formal apology and request Secretary del Rosario to invite Ambassador Harry Thomas why their military craft has free access to our areas of responsibility,” he told reporters during a press conference.

Zubiri, one of the authors of Republic Act 10067 No. or the Tubbataha Reef National Park Law of 2009, lambasted the damage caused by the US Navy’s USS Guardian which has yet to be removed from the Tubbataha Reef.

“The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) only pertains to our training and war games with the US. It doesn’t grant them access to all sea lanes and landmarks,” he said, saying that the US Navy ship has caused damage on what he felt was one of the top five dive spots in the world.

“If it were our ship which entered American territory without their permission, they would not allow it,” Zubiri said in Filipino, insisting that a “US Navy apology was not enough. The US ambassador should send an apology.”

A “simple apology” from the US embassy and payment of fines for the damage on the coral reef would be enough, he said.

But it was more important to understand why the USS Guardian was sailing within the vicinity of the Tubbataha Reef in the first place, said Senator Gregorio Honasan who sought a review of bilateral agreements that the country had with the United States to ensure that the Philippines can depend on the Americans in the time of need.

“Huwag na muna (itanong) kung bakit sumadsad pero bakit nandoon (Let’s not ask why it ran aground but why it was sailing there),” he said, pointing out that it was important to review bilateral agreements like the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty “para malaman kung tutulong talaga sila o salita lang.”

“We need to review every single bilateral and multilateral agreement,” Honasan said.

The “diplomatic and proper” procedure should have been to inform local authorities of their presence in the area, he pointed out.
The review on the bilateral agreements would show whether the US valued its historical relationship with the Philippines more than its current relationship with China, Honasan added.

The minesweeper, part of a US navy contingent patrolling the South China Sea, was en route to its next port of call after a stop in the Philippines when it grazed the reef and got stuck some 128 kilometers off Palawan before dawn on Thursday.

The US Navy blamed a faulty map used by the minesweeper that misplaced the location of the Tubbataha Reefs.

With the 688-meter ship lying on some 10 meters of coral, Philippine environmental groups have called for US accountability for the destruction of the national marine treasure.

The US Navy’s 7th Fleet acknowledged that the grounding could have damaged the reef, even as it dispatched an assessment team to plan and execute the delicate extraction from the reefs.

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