MANILA, Philippines—Saying apologies and guarantees of “just compensation” were not enough, at least two Philippine senators are keen to hold the United States accountable for the destruction of the Tubbataha Reef following the grounding a US Navy minesweeper on the marine sanctuary nearly a month ago.
Sen. Loren Legarda said she would push for a Senate inquiry into the grounding of the USS Guardian on the coral reef, a protected area home to dense marine life in the Sulu Sea.
“My question is, how do you restore the destroyed reef after you take out the minesweeper from the area. It’s not enough that they just come and extricate the minesweeper,” Legarda, told Philippine Daily Inquirer editors and reporters over dinner Tuesday night.
“These coral reefs that took centuries to grow. “Paano na yan (What now)?,” said Legarda, who heads the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Legarda said the inquiry will “definitely” push through in July and would look into cases that could be filed against the US Navy for the incident.
“I filed the resolution [for a hearing]. We can only do that when the session resumes, which is in July. Only when we conduct the hearing will we be able to know why they had to pass through [the protected area],” Legarda said.
Legarda said the Philippine government has been soft on the United States, the country’s top defense ally.
“We’re soft. We appear soft. And we should not be soft because this is a test of how we value our sovereignty and how we value what is ours. Because if they can just step this way and say ‘aray’ (ouch), then move on, then we will not be respected by other countries,” said Legarda.
The US ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr., had apologized for the incident and promised “appropriate compensation” for damages on the reef. Salvage efforts are underway but is suffering delays.
But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago called the grounding an “unspeakable crime” against the marine sanctuary and blasted what she said were the US government’s attempt to appear magnanimous instead of accountable for the reef’s destruction.
Speaking before a packed theater at the University of the Philippines in Manila on Tuesday, Santiago called Thomas’ apology “doublespeak.” She said calling the grounding an accident “implies that the act of the US ship involved no negligence or fault.”
“Imagine they are a high-tech society, they have the gall to say their maps are wrong? Can you actually buy wrong maps? And of all the maps out there, they happened to buy the wrong one?,” said a fired up Santiago in her first public appearance after a nearly month-long sick leave.
“In my view, the statement issued by the US embassy makes American compensation and other activities look like foreign assistance, for which we Filipinos are expected to be grateful. Gee, thanks for bumping into our reef,” said Santiago.
“I am concerned that the American offer of compensation is made to appear, not as a dictate of legal obligation under international law, but as an indulgence in American magnanimity.”
The senator said the United States not only violated Philippine laws but is also in offense of international law.
“International law is clear that whether or not there was negligence or fault on the part of the US warship, under the principle of state responsibility, the US government is responsible for the partial destruction of Tubbataha Reef, which some say will need 250 years to be fully restored,” said Santiago.
The ship, which ran aground on the reef on Jan. 17 en route to Indonesia following a stop in Subic Bay, reportedly ignored warnings from Filipino park rangers not to sail into the protected area.
The US Navy had said faulty navigation equipment may have misplaced the reef on its map, leading to the grounding. Declaring the ship no longer seaworthy due to heavy hull damage, the US Navy has decided to dismantle the $277-million vessel to prevent further damage on the reef.