“Under international and domestic laws such as the Polluter Pays Principle, Rio and Stockholm Declarations, the United States government is legally bound to pay for environmental damages brought about by its military forces and assets in other countries.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – One year since a US Navy minesweeper trespassed and grounded into parts of protected Tubbataha Reef Park, no amount of compensation has actually been paid nor committed to by the US government while the Aquino government has also not yet raised demands for US accountability. Marking the first year of this grounding and the lack of reparation, environmentalists trooped to the Supreme Court today (Jan.16) to file a motion asking the high court to compel the US military to pay damages.
“Under international and domestic laws such as the Polluter Pays Principle, Rio and Stockholm Declarations, the United States government is legally bound to pay for environmental damages brought about by its military forces and assets in other countries. The US government simply has no excuse not to immediately pay at least PHP58 million ($1.288 million)for the damages that it has incurred in Tubbataha Reef, but it still has not complied with the prescribed indemnification a year after,” said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE.
USS Guardian slammed and was grounded on no-sail zone Tubbataha reef in January 17 last year. Weather and water current problems and public concern about further damage to the reef forced the US Navy to cut the ship into pieces to remove it. The final section of the hull of the approximately 250-ton stern of USS Guardian was lifted off the site on March 30 last year, nearly two and a half months since it ran aground. After that, small pieces of the ship were still collected by divers around the area for days.
The said US Navy ship had seen action for 23 years, detecting and neutralizing mines. The US military stopped the USS Guardian’s work of neutralizing mines because of the “tragic mishap” in Tubbataha, where the “USS Guardian leadership and watch teams failed to adhere to prudent, safe, and sound navigation principles which would have alerted them to approaching dangers with sufficient time to take mitigating action.” Cecil D. Haney, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said this in the US Navy’s 160-page investigation report.
But along with the admission, the U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs praised the Guardian and its crew for having served the U.S. Navy “honourably” for over 23 years.
At the earlier ceremony for the USS Guardian’s decommissioning held in the US military naval base in Sasebo, Japan March last year, shortly before Guardian’s last piece was hauled off Tubbataha, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, praised the crew and ship for remaining “at the highest levels of readiness, serving our nation (US) well.”
But where is US readiness to pay compensation?
On the first anniversary of USS Guardian’s grounding, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) reiterated its demand for the immediate payment of compensation for damages on Tubbataha from the United States Government.
With other petitioners, Kalikasan PNE submitted to the Supreme Court a new motion calling for a Writ of Kalikasan against US military exercises in the country. They cited as one of the bases “the persisting lack of environmental guidelines regarding US military exercises under the administration of President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III.”
It is the third motion the environmentalist groups have filed since the Tubbataha grounding. The first was filed in April last year; the second was filed in July. Bautista told Bulatlat.com that these motions successively boost the arguments for issuing a Writ of Kalikasan against US military exercises in the Philippines.
The environmentalist groups, in its petition, asserted that the United States “also recognizes international law as domestic law in many circumstances.”
“The United States may be bound, by customary international law and international conventions, to pay the environmental remediation costs for damages or injury inflicted by its armed forces, military assets, and other state resources which happen to be in the Philippines,” the third motion said.
The constant presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines, even if on a “temporary” basis, further reinforces the need for Philippine courts to acknowledge the duties of the US military under international law, the petitioners said. It asked the Supreme Court, too, if “treaty law, including the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, (may) be interpreted in ways that would preempt environmental responsibility?”
The group expressed disappointment over the Aquino administration’s “lame” actions at pursuing justice.
“Instead, the administration has served as mouthpiece of the US government in justifying the delay of compensation supposedly due to the pending legal cases filed against them,” Bautista said.
During the time it was aground, the USS Guardian damaged 2,345 square meters of pristine coral reefs, which adversely affected the ecosystem in the area as well as the livelihood of numerous small fishermen who are dependent on the reef system, the Kalikasan PNE said.
But the Aquino government is “calling for the junking of our writ of kalikasan against US forces,” Bautista said. He challenged President Aquino to give the case his wholehearted push as the writ “asserts Philippine sovereignty, upholds the protection of our environment, and affirms our criminal jurisdiction over the foreign perpetrators.”
If the Philippine government failed to issue a Writ of Kalikasan, it invites further damages “as there would be no legal framework to hold US troops accountable for their environmental transgressions,” the Kalikasan PNE said in a statement.
Other environmental damages resulting from the presence of US troops in the country include the dumping of four million liters of toxic and hazardous waste in Subic Bay by a US navy contractor last October 2012, and the impending ecological destruction by the ongoing construction of a naval base in Oyster Bay located in Palawan.
Kalikasan asked the national government to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, saying the continued presence of US military forces in the Philippines is to blame for the additional environmental damages in the country.
Bautista warned: “As long as the VFA is in place, US troops will continue to swarm into our country, blazing a trail of environmental destruction and toxic wastes.”
The petitioners for Writ of Kalikasan against US military exercises warned that if the courts dismiss suits of this magnitude, and whose damage is admitted by no less than the respondent, what then will be our assurance that future environmental devastations committed by foreign troops will be punished? Fearing such prospects for the environment, the patriotic and environmentalist groups cited the urgency of the relief that they are seeking from the immediate issuance of the Writ of Kalikasan against the US Navy.