Special Report: The legal battle for Palmas island

- Romel Bagares, Aurea Calica () - February 3, 2003 - 12:00am
( Conclusion )
If the Philippines loses some 15,000 square kilometers of rich territorial waters in the Sulawesi Sea, there will be no one to blame but the Arroyo administration.

While President Arroyo is "comforting" overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait, Indonesia continues to document its claim to the small island of Palmas, only 47 nautical miles east-northeast of Sarangani island in Mindanao.

Reeling from its loss to Malaysia of two islands off Sabah last year, Jakarta has already told Philippine officials that it has established new territorial baselines that includes Palmas, which Indons call Pulau Miangas.

"It’s easy to see why Indonesia is keen on claiming Palmas," said international law expert Prof. H. Harry Roque.

"Using Palmas as basepoint to draw straight baselines, it could extend its territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone to a distance that would eat up 15,000 square kilometers of what the Philippines considers as part of its national territory," Roque told The STAR.

Sources said the Indons also included in the new baselines the islands of Merampit and Marore, which are shown in the 1899 Atlas de Filipinas as belonging to the Philippines but excluded in boundaries established by the 1898 Treaty of Paris between Spain and the United States.

The 1898 Treaty of Paris settled the Spanish-American War and ceded several Spanish territories, including the Philippines, to the US.

The Indonesians claim that Marore and Merampit belong to Indonesia because they were not included in the 1898 Treaty of Paris while they inherited Palmas from the Dutch who allegedly gained title to the island from the US in a landmark arbitration case.

In 1909, the US and the Netherlands disputed ownership of Palmas Island and it was not until 1925 that they agreed to submit the matter to arbitration.

Three years later, the designated arbitrator Judge Max Huber of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Netherlands because they supposedly had "continuous administrative control" of the island.
International law favors RP
But Roque argues that this Huber doctrine of "continuous administrative control" as well as international legal principles and jurisprudence favor the Philippines.

In his article in the forthcoming issue of the Philippine Law Journal, Roque argues that Spain could not have legally ceded Palmas or any part of the Philippines to the United States because Filipinos had already established the Republic of the Philippines on June 12, 1898 before the Treaty of Paris was signed on Dec. 10, 1898.

Roque maintained that even if Spain validly ceded the Philippines to the United States, the Huber decision on the Palmas island arbitration case cannot be binding on the Philippines under international legal principles on state succession.

Roque said that even if Jakarta continues to use the Huber doctrine as a basis for its claim on Palmas, their claim would remain weak because "for all intents and purposes (Palmas) is occupied by Filipinos with no Indonesian presence at all."
Backlog at the Palace
Despite the strength of Manila’s legal position, however, several key executive decisions still have to be made on how to face Indonesia’s claims on Palmas, Marore and Merampit.

Already, Indonesia has spent some $40 million to chart its boundaries in the internationally accepted standard which it used to designate new baselines, including the three Philippine islands.

Jakarta has also officially designated "archipelagic sealanes" that have already been approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which would further strengthen the definition of the country’s maritime borders under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

On both issues of hydrographic charting and designation of sealanes, the Philippines is lagging behind Indonesia, which has 13,000 islands to make it the largest archipelago in the world.
Small but terrible
But while Palmas, Marore and Merampit are only small dots in the wide sea that separates Indonesia and the Philippines, they actually have strategic, political and economic importance.

Roque said the islands of Palmas, Marore and Merampit lie close to the "strategic axis" linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

"The establishment of archipelagic sealanes between Cape San Agustin and Palmas over which the Philippines has sovereignty enables the country, possibly in cooperation with Indonesia, to monitor, control and maintain surveillance of sensitive maritime jurisdictions," Roque said.

"Such monitoring and control is vital to the security and economic interests of the Philippines since major population centers, industrial zones and ports of Mati, Davao City, General Santos, Cotabato, Pagadian and Zamboanga are directly accessible from these sealanes," he added.

The island is also close to critical spawning areas and passage "highways" of economically important fish, like the yellow-fin tuna. The area has also been tagged as a "large marine ecosystem" by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and has a vital environmental importance.

Roque said the "warm pool" of the world’s oceans is also centered on Southern Mindanao, making the Davao Gulf, Sarangani and Illana Bay in the Moro Gulf as the most suitable sites for large-scale "ocean terminal energy plants (OTEC)" that are envisioned to produce at least 400 megawatts a year.

OTEC, Roque said, promises to be "the most environmentally friendly renewable sources of energy now in the commercial horizon" after technological breakthroughs at the Saga University in Japan.

"The Philippines needs to ensure the maritime security of these sea areas in anticipation of the launching of revolutionary types of archipelagic development based on OTEC and deep ocean water technologies, providing air-conditioning, food, energy and fresh water direct from the sea," he said.

Alternative energy is also believed to be available from the Philippine Deep, which lies along the country’s eastern seaboard, Roque said.

He noted that scientists are now developing the technology to utilize "heavy water," or deuterium, which is abundant at the bottom of the Philippine Deep as the "ultimate fuel of the future."

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