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Open letter to Aquino

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I respectfully write to you, Mr. President, as a Filipino frustrated that a certain neighbor has been acting like a bully, with us on the receiving end. Aside from its incursions into our territory, the people of that country have been capturing our endangered wildlife, in violation of national and international law. If only for that, we need to take action.

When we try to confront this bully, it displays its overwhelming military might. It cannot even keep its word on easing tensions. While we may not have the military hardware to overcome our shame and punish that country for its impunity and duplicity, let us not forget that we have the moral might to make things right.

We must initiate legal action which, after all, is nothing more than a continuation of diplomacy. Actions may be available in the International Court of Justice, the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos), and other dispute-resolution forums. The Philippines has some of the world’s top international legal experts—people like former Justice Florentino Feliciano, Sen. Miriam Santiago, former Deans Merlin Magallona and Raul Pangalangan and Professors Harry Roque and Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines College of Law, Dean Sedfrey Candelaria of the Ateneo College of Law, and Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government. They can help us think through our legal and metalegal options.

Action must be taken to strike back, using the sword of reason and the power of the law as our weapons.

But may I suggest that instead of fighting over the pieces of land that make up the Spratly Islands, the dimension of the debate be changed. It’s small thinking to quarrel over a few pieces of rock in the middle of a big sea in the hope of finding oil to take out and use up for the present needs of a single country. It’s big thinking to take the debate to an altogether different, and highly moral, plane. Remember that in 1986, the Filipinos showed the world how to wage a nonviolent revolution. The world watched, and then even copied our example.

Today, confronted by a bigger power, we will not cower. Instead, like an ant, we will bite, and in very many different places. We will fight fire not with fire, but with water.

My respectful suggestion: that the Philippines initiate a move to declare the entire Spratly Islands and the West Philippine Sea (aka the South China Sea) an international marine reserve and nature park. By doing that, we will not directly antagonize any of the other countries claiming the parts of or the whole Spratlys. The Philippines will take the moral high road, and thereby earn the respect of the world that is increasingly more environmentally aware. Rather than fight with the other claimant-countries in competition to use resources for the present, we will bring the countries together in cooperation to reserve resources for the future.

The other claimant-countries may well resist the initiative. That is expected and is most welcome because it will spark a worldwide debate. It will show the world how beautiful is the prospect of having an international marine park for peace. Resistance from the other claimant-countries will not look good on the pages of history.

For the Philippines, every effort exerted will be attuned to the desires of the world community. As a matter of fact, the Spratlys can even be an international observation center for the adverse effects of global warming on coral reefs and marine life. Together with the other claimant-countries and concerned international agencies and civil society organizations, we can propose the establishment of an International Marine Station, much like the International Space Station. There is no limit to the benefits of cooperation when people understand that no one really owns anything, and that we are all just passing through.

This move to protect marine life is especially significant because the initiative will be undertaken by the Philippines, which is known as “the center of the center of marine biodiversity on Earth.” Precisely because our seas are the most gifted, we have the credibility and the responsibility to advocate their conservation not only for today but for all time.

“The coastal State, taking into account the best scientific evidence available to it, shall ensure through proper conservation and management measures that the maintenance of the living resources in the exclusive economic zone is not endangered by over-exploitation. As appropriate, the coastal State and competent international organizations, whether subregional, regional or global, shall cooperate to this end.” (Article 61, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

“The high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes.” (Article 88)

No State may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty. (Article 89)

No wonder this bully of a country refuses to submit the issue to the Itlos.

For a start, Mr. President, and to show that you are serious, you can issue a presidential proclamation declaring the areas of the Spratly Islands and the surrounding seas claimed by the Philippines as a nationally protected area and marine reserve. Then you can certify a bill to have Congress pass it into law. This initiative will show the seriousness of purpose of the Philippines and of the Filipino people in their desire for peace and for the protection of marine life for the benefit of future generations.

After having done this, or simultaneously with the declaration of our claimed islands and surrounding seas as a protected area, we can begin the international campaign to have it declared an International Marine Reserve and a UN World Heritage Site.

More important than the outcome, the journey will be most interesting and exciting. Whether we achieve that or not in your term or in your and our lifetimes, we shall have started the process of mobilizing the world community to view the problem of the Spratlys as an opportunity. For it is an opportunity, not for intense competition for more resources for the present, but for friendly cooperation for the benefit of future generations. It will be “Spratly Islands Fish Bank.”

Mr. President, we must not allow ourselves to be bullied by a big and bad neighborhood toughie. Small as we are, we must show ourselves and the world that we are ready to stand for our country’s honor using the power of the law.  Again, Sir, while we cannot fight the bully mano a mano for obvious reasons, we can, and must, use our moral stature to upset its balance and expose its greed.

We must use whatever power we have in our hands to strive for the “greater good for the greatest number for the longest time.”

Antonio A. Oposa Jr., lawyer and environmental activist, is a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009.  He is the pioneer in the practice of environmental law in the Philippines.


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