MANILA, Philippines – Various groups composed of marine and legal experts on Thursday urged the Philippine government to “act decisively” in holding the United States (US) accountable for the damage its stranded United States (US) Navy Ship caused to the Tubbataha Reef, saying that the US would continue to commit “environmental crimes” should the government let this pass.
In a forum entitled “The Crash on Tubbataha” held at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Renato Reyes, secretary general of the militant umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) renewed the call for the termination of the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) as he warned against the dangerous implications of what he described as the US’ “unlimited access” to Philippine waters.
“The real problem is the VFA. US ships are given a kind of ‘unlimited access’ to our waters that even Malacañang is clueless as to why the USS Guardian was in Tubbataha. The ability of the US Navy to [freely access] our waters is too dangerous,” Reyes said.
“To prevent similar incidents from happening, the VFA must go. Pending the termination of the VFA, no US ship should be allowed in our waters while the Tubbataha problem is yet resolved,” he added.
Earlier reports had noted that around 1,000 square meters of corals had been severely damaged because of the grounding incident and that the Philippine government had expressed its intent to fine the US Navy for the damage and illegal entry into the marine sanctuary.
But Reyes, in his talk, noted that the issue was not just about receiving just compensation for the damage but the assertion of the country’s sovereignty against the US.
“We may be getting a relatively small compensation for Tubbataha, that is assuming the US is even willing to pay up. But asserting our sovereignty against the US, on a matter related to a world heritage site, that is priceless. That is long-term,” Reyes said.
Renmar Martinez, a representative from the Marine Science Institute in UP, meanwhile, noted that based on their estimates, the initial reef damage cost amounted to P12 million but the estimates did not include the travel costs.
Martinez also underscored the importance of the Tubbataha Reef as a “symbol of the Philippines’ sovereignty,” saying that as a world heritage site, it serves a “legacy of national and global importance.”
Martinez noted that the unique aspects of the reef in terms of bio-diversity and ecologically balanced systems made it a “pivotal” site in the study of climate change.
Lawyer Romel Regalado Bagares, executive director of the Manila-based Center for International Law, for his part, said that the Philippines could study legal remedies in holding the US accountable for the incident, but that the question was whether the Philippine government was willing to challenge the US.
Bagares said the process would be long and arduous because of conflicting laws, but that the Philippine government must be firm in its stand to hold the US accountable.
He noted that the VFA provided provisions saying that the US would pay “just and reasonable compensation” based on “meritorious claims” for damages by its personnel.
Bagares also said that it was hard to believe that the US navy’s use of “faulty navigational charts” were to blame for the incident, citing US’ advancements in technology. He said that they were having suspicions that the ship had an “unannounced, unplanned tourism trip to Tubbataha.”
Roland Simbulan, former UP professor and known critique of the VFA, said that this incident was only one of many “environmental crimes” committed by the US against the Philippines, and that “it was time for the country to firmly defend its national interests.”
“There are many questions left unanswered…..But one thing is clear. Incidents like this will happen again and again in the future and the Philippine government will just be contented for whatever reason that the US government through its embassy will issue,” Simbulan said.