Philippines Supreme Court issues writ against US navy
Military and Aquino face prosecution for damaging reef
The Supreme Court yesterday approved the issuance of a writ of Kalikasan (Writ of Nature) against the US Navy over a military ship that ran aground in Tubbataha Reef early this year.
The court directed the respondents in the case – Scott Swift in his capacity as commander of the US 7th Fleet, Mark Rice as commanding officer of the USS Guardian and government officials led by President Benigno Aquino – to answer the petition within 10 days of receipt.
Environmental activists, including two Catholic bishops and several lawyers, last week filed the petition for a writ of Kalikasan. This is a legal remedy under Philippine law which provides for the protection of one's right to "a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature."
The petitioners asked the court to assess the damage caused to the reef, a UNESCO World heritage site, by the grounding of the US minesweeper USS Guardian and a determination of the fine to be imposed.
They also asked the court to order a stop to US 'war games' and port calls by US military ships in the absence of clear guidelines on environmental protection under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.
Green groups welcomed the court decision, saying it is a "concrete victory for all."
"This is great news indeed. The speed with which the Supreme Court issued the writ, if we go by the reports, is record-breaking. This may imply that we have a clear case,” said lawyer Edsel Tupaz, lead counsel of the petitioners.
"Now we will see if the US Navy will respect the Supreme Court decision or, like in the past, claim immunity from prosecution and exemption from Philippine criminal jurisdiction under the VFA," said Clemente Bautista of the group Kalikasan - the People's Network for the Environment.
Under the VFA, "the US authorities exercise exclusive jurisdiction over US personnel with respect to offenses including offenses relating to the security of the US, punishable under the laws of the US, but not under the laws of the Philippines."
The agreement also states that “the custody of any US personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with the US military authorities from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings.”
Tupaz, meanwhile, said he does not see any reason for the respondents to contest the facts of the case. "I hope I was able to provide a legal, if not constitutional, basis for environmental damages of this magnitude," he said.
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