MANILA – As oral arguments in the petition for writ of kalikasan before the Supreme Court kicked off Tuesday, one Supreme Court associate justice said he’d rather have the government focus on “other important things” than guard the country’s shoals in the West Philippine Sea.
“How can the government guard that shoal 24 hours a day and spend money on that when we have other important things to do in this country?” Associate Justice Andres Reyes, Jr. said as he interpellated one of the lawyers of petitioners Integrated Bar of the Philippines and fisherfolks from Palawan and Zambales.
The petitioners have accused the Philippine government of neglect in protecting the environment and marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, urging the high court to compel various government agencies to do their mandate under various Philippine laws such as the Philippine Fisheries Code and Presidential Decree 1599 which created the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The petitioners have identified 3 areas where Chinese-flagged vessels allegedly caused massive destruction: Ayungin (Second Thomas) and Panatag (Scarborough) shoals as well as the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.
Ayungin Shoal and Panganiban Reef have been declared part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by the South China Sea (SCS) Arbitral Tribunal while both China and the Philippines have conflicting maritime claims over Panatag Shoal.
Petitioners insist that under PD 1599, Panatag Shoal falls within the Philippines’ EEZ, being with 200 nautical miles from the country’s baseline.
But for Reyes, the country simply does not have the resources to pay soldiers and policemen properly, much less send a ship to guard these areas.
“If we have money to buy all these ships, can we not spend the money to just rehabilitate Pasig River and spend 20 billion in Pasig River so that we have enough water instead of sending 20 billion to buy all these modern ships with all these monitoring capabilities and the perhaps aggressive equipment to defend this country?” he asked lawyer Andre Palacios, one of the counsels of the petitioners.
Reyes said the Supreme Court cannot interfere in the management of the country.
“[W]e cannot micromanage this economy, the country. We are only here to look at the case but we cannot interfere nor intrude on the powers of the management by the President of the Philippines,” he said.
Reyes faulted petitioners for the way the petition was drafted – “as if you are the USA that the government can attend to every problem of the country” – emphasizing that the Philippines is not yet a well-developed country.
“I think it’s politically motivated to embarrass our country with this petition,” he added.
FOREIGN POLICY CONSIDERATIONS
Fellow-Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier, for her part, said the President is proceeding with caution in dealing with the West Philippine Sea issue, in contrast with what the petitioners hope to achieve.
“[Y]our tack is to confront, you are proposing the filing of criminal charges against them and that is confrontational. On the other hand…the court can take judicial notice of how the President is proceeding with caution on this issue, so perhaps it is safe to say that the President is not opting for any confrontation because he is exhausting all available means through the diplomatic channel,” she explained.
Javier differentiated the President’s handling of the environmental issues in Boracay and Manila Bay, saying both areas all lie within the national territory and are “devoid of any foreign relation considerations.”
Palacios insisted, they are only asking the high court for enforcement of domestic laws.
“If they can be enforced against Filipinos, then they should also be enforced in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen however saw the comparison between President Duterte’s actions on the environmental issues in Boracay and the West Philippine Sea differently.
“He closed down an entire island, and in the entire island he made the remediation measures…if the President can do that for Boracay, why can’t he do that in the West Philippine Sea, is there something he’s afraid of?” he asked.
Earlier in his interpellation of IBP counsel Chel Diokno, chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group, Leonen pointed out that it is not beyond the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to rule on a legal issue simply because it has an impact on foreign policy.
The President, after all, is not above the Constitution, he said.