“US troops have a dirty streak across the Asia-Pacific region, posing environmental threats or even directly causing destruction and pollution over the past century in the Pacific Islands, Australia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, and even in their own country’s West Coast.” – Kalikasan PNE
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Green groups marked today Jan. 17 the first anniversary of the grounding of USS Guardian into protected marine site Tubbataha Reef. Condemning what they describe as “inaction” of both the US and Philippine governments in compensating the country for the damages the reef sustained since a year ago, environmentalist groups led by Kalikasan Peoples Network for the Environment also demanded the resignation or outright sacking of officials who should have pursued compensation.
The official estimate is that the errant US Navy ship, which had to be cut into pieces and decommissioned to remove it from the reef, damaged at least 2,345 square meters of coral reefs in the critical marine ecosystem and world heritage site.
“We condemn the negligence and willful silence of US Ambassador Philip Goldberg over the PHP58-million indemnification they owe us for their Navy ship’s destruction in Tubbataha Reef,” said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE.
The group also demanded the resignation of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, citing his gross negligence at pursuing compensation for the Tubbataha Reef grounding, and his serving as an apologist for the grave environmental crimes of US troops in the Philippines.
“Amidst clear violations of domestic and international environmental laws that oblige the US government to pay, Sec. Del Rosario parroted the US government’s pathetic excuse that they will not pay yet due to pending legal actions on the Tubbataha grounding,” Bautista said.
A day before, Kalikasan PNE joined other groups as petitioners in filing a third motion at the Supreme Court demanding immediate payment from the US government for the damages it inflicted with the grounding. They are also demanding for a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) on US military exercises and operations in the Philippines. They cited as basis the absence of clear and stringent environmental guidelines governing the activity of US troops within PH’s territories.
In their third urgent petition for TEPO, the petitioners explained that “Customary law and conventional international environmental law leave no room for questions of State immunity or jurisdiction.” They said it is also not a case of political question subject to inaction by the executive department. “Because State liability or State responsibility is certain – what remains may only be the extent of that liability.” As such, they concluded that the matter of issuing the Writ of Kalikasan is urgent.
The petition cited various laws and precedents supporting the release of Writ of Kalikasan. These include the Rio and Stockholm Declarations and the Polluter Pays Principle, which they said also legally bind the US government to pay for the environmental damages they caused in Tubbataha Reef.
Reef protection comprises a serious State and social interest involving the lifeblood of peoples, the petitioners argued. Enforcing our laws for protecting the environment is not subject to political bargaining and political questions, they wrote. Also, given that “the damage to the environment is so clear and undeniable, so great in magnitude that whole ecosystems are harmed, caused by a sophisticated military minesweeper at that,” they said any kind of solution would have to be an internationally acceptable one , and that can only be “restoration by the wrongdoer.”
A toxic trail by US troops over the Pacific
In a research released last Wednesday by the Kalikasan PNE assessing the track record of US military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, they noted that the Tubbataha Reef grounding was just one of the US military’s countless and bigger environmental crimes.
“US troops have a dirty streak across the Asia-Pacific region, posing environmental threats or even directly causing destruction and pollution over the past century in the Pacific Islands, Australia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, and even in their own country’s West Coast. US forces have resorted to various tactics from downplaying threats, collaborating with local military partners, and disputing responsibilities as they are still doing now. It begs the questions: how much of these cases have they actually compensated for? How many cases have actually gone unreported?” Bautista said.
Adverse environmental impacts are now feared to continue mounting in the Philippines and in other Asia-Pacific countries as the US implements the strategic repositioning of 60 percent of its troops, mostly naval forces, in the region. The repositioning was detailed in a 2012 US Department of Defense document signed by Pres. Barack Obama.
The ongoing US-PH negotiations for what these two countries’ panels dubbed as “a framework agreement on increased rotational presence” of US troops in PH territories, which the administration of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III had repeatedly defended, are also seen as part of this US ‘pivot’ toward Asia.
“We are tired of the Aquino government’s token pronouncements on reviewing the VFA and other onerous US-PH defense treaties on one hand, and railroading policies promoting the further militarization of our seas and other territories on the other. That US troops have left a toxic trail across the country and the entire region should have been basis enough for us to refuse increasing US military intervention,” Bautista said.
Even as the US government has still not yet made any payment for Tubbataha grounding, it is seen as the force behind the Aquino government’s ongoing construction of a naval base in the biodiversity-rich Oyster Bay in Palawan. Reports have mentioned that the US Navy’s West Philippine Sea operations would likely use the new naval base in Oyster Bay, as co-locator with the Philippine Navy whose vessels also used to be part of the fleet under the US military command.
In their third petition calling for a Writ of Kalikasan on US military exercises and demanding compensation for Tubbataha, environmental groups as represented in the petition by lawyer Edsel Tupaz and lawyer Edre Olalia of National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), wrote that “if this straying minesweeper would be afforded impunity from a State’s laws, then the Republic of the Philippines is sending a message to the world that any visiting State, clandestine entry or not, may be at liberty to cast aside internationally wrongful acts. Worse, a foreign State can cast aside even those wrongs which are clearly admitted, no less, by an erring instrumentality of that erring State.”
As such, green groups and various patriotic groups allied with Bagong Alyansang Makabayan are demanding not just the end of Visiting Forces Agreement, the supposed pact that gave the US troops license to stay in the Philippines “temporarily permanently” or permanently temporarily.” They also urged for the suspension of construction of Oyster Bay naval base.
A demand to protect PH’s environment, sovereignty
The protesters who tried to get near the US Embassy in Manila on Jan. 17 insisted that the US-Aquino regime “clearly has no legal basis to delay demands for compensation and justice for the environmental damages in the Tubbataha grounding.”
They also compelled Pres. BS Aquino to immediately act on several “doable solutions” to the environmental impact of US troops and bases. These, they say, include the formulation of environmental guidelines on US troops.
“The Filipino must take Ambassador Goldberg, Sec. Del Rosario and Pres. BS Aquino himself to task for consciously hindering our claims for compensation and justice in the Tubbataha grounding,” Bautista of Kalikasan PNE said. He reiterated also his group’s calls for the US government to compensate for the damages and losses they caused in their various environmental crimes, and ultimately repeal the Visiting Forces Agreement.