A US naval ship that ran aground on a tropical reef off the Philippines has incurred a fine and raised the ire of religious and environmental groups, who say the US has overstepped its rights in the region.
Philippine authorities announced today that they would impose a fine for unauthorized entry into the waters around Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. The reef is protected by Philippine law, and is off-limits to navigation except for research or tourism approved by the marine park superintendent. The amount of the fine will be announced once the damage is assessed.
The announcement was accompanied by criticism from several bodies.
It has become apparent that the US military has "undermined Philippine sovereignty, encroached protected areas and caused environmental havoc to our natural resources and contravened our constitution and international laws and regulations under the veil of the VFA," said Nardy Sabino, general secretary of Promotion of Church People’s Response, a religious coalition.
The PCPR also says the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US should be abolished due to the damage inflicted on the reef.
The VFA is a bilateral agreement that allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over its military personnel, except in the case of crimes that are of "particular" importance to the Philippines. The agreement also exempts US military personnel from visa and passport regulations in the Philippines.
Renato Reyes, of the militant group New Patriotic Alliance, also called for a stop to port calls and US military exercises in the country, saying the frequency of port calls, supposedly allowed under the VFA, "transforms the country into a virtual military base."
The ship ran aground after paying a port call at Subic Bay while transiting the Sulu Sea en route to Indonesia. The Avenger-class minesweeper remains stalled on the reef.
"We are in a rage with how the US is handling this particular issue. It just shows their insolence to our national sovereignty and their inconsiderate regard to our natural resources," said Einstien Recedes, spokesperson of the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines.
The commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet earlier apologized for damages caused by the ship, USS Guardian.
"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef," said Vice Admiral Scott Swift in a statement posted on the 7th Fleet’s website.
"We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment," Swift said.
In October last year, Glenn Marine Defense Asia Philippines, a US navy contractor, was caught dumping thousands of liters of untreated hazardous wastes from US ships near Subic Bay.
A local fisherman was killed and his son seriously injured during a joint maritime exercise off Basilan province in Mindanao last April.