Owning our WPS blue economy

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) welcomed the Senate approval last Monday on third and final reading the Philippine Maritime Zones Bill. Shepherded by the Senate special committee on Philippine maritime and admiralty zones chaired by Senator Francis “Tol” Tolentino, the legislative measure was unanimously voted as Senate Bill (SB) 2492.

The DFA headed by Secretary Enrique Manalo congratulated Tolentino for “this landmark legislation” that will codify the status and regime of the waters inside the archipelagic baselines, redefines the extent of Philippine territorial sea, and claims a 24-nautical mile contiguous zone, among others.

On the same vein, NSA Secretary Eduardo Año lauded the 24 Senators led by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri for advancing SB 2492 at the legislative mills. Once this measure is approved into law, the NSA chief believes, this will definitely help enforce the 2016 Arbitral Award in favor of the Philippines.

Año looks forward to the Philippine Maritime Zones as a law that will not only reaffirm the country’s sovereign rights over the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but also establishes clear guidelines for the delineation of maritime zones, including sea lanes, air routes and the utilization of natural resources within our jurisdiction.

SB 2492 is the counterpart version of House Bill (HB) No. 7819 approved and transmitted to the Senate last year. The twin measures were included in the list of priority bills agreed upon at the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) chaired by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM). The DFA highlighted the significance of the twin bills as “a crucial step for the Philippines to put its archipelagic house in order and to harmonize its domestic law” with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“We look forward to its enactment so that Philippines could effectively enforce its relevant domestic laws and related international laws to protect its marine and fish resources, preserve and conserve its marine environment and enhance maritime safety and security,” the DFA Secretary pointed out.

In our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday, Sen. Tolentino expressed his confidence that both chambers of the 19th Congress will be able to ratify the consolidated version of this twin legislative bills before they adjourn for the Holy Week on March 22. Sen. Tolentino sees no hitch that PBBM will be able to sign it into law before the second regular sessions of the 19th Congress adjourn sine die in June this year.

Tolentino conceded the existing Philippine Baseline Laws are obviously insufficient. Baselines serve as basis for a country’s maritime jurisdiction and a means to establish maritime boundaries with neighboring coastal States. For the longest time, he noted, the Philippines invoked international rules and laws – being a signatory-country to the UNCLOS along with 136 other signatories. And lately, the Arbitral decision at The Hague that ruled against Beijing’s imaginary “nine-dash line” claims on the South China Sea (SCS).

With the full support of the respective Secretaries of the present DFA and the NSA, Tolentino declared the enactment of this legislative measure will finally enforce our country’s sovereign claims all over our maritime borders in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). From north to south, west-to-east of the Philippines, Tolentino gestured to underscore how the soon-to-become law strengthens the hands of the government against the continuing intimidation, harassments and other transgressions in the disputed areas at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), Ayungin Shoal and other parts in the WPS.

It was the late Senator Arturo Tolentino who authored the country’s first-ever Baseline Law, Sen. Tolentino recalled.

But he quickly added he was not related to the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Thus, the upcoming new law is “30 years in the making” that was started in 1984 by the elder Tolentino. On April 17, 2009 former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed into law Republic Act (RA) 9522. This was immediately protested by China and Vietnam.

“All of these maritime laws would further support a lot of our claims, the EEZ, the contiguous seas, sea lanes, the freedom of navigation, especially our blue economy,” Tolentino asserted.

Another proposed legislation authored by Sen. Tolentino is the bill to establish the Philippine Archipelagic Sea Lanes, which can add teeth to our domestic laws and help support to our WPS claims.

A lawyer by profession and earned post-graduate studies on international laws, Sen. Tolentino explained that this legislative measure officially declares the Philippines as adopting the Arbitral ruling as part of our country’s statutes. Thus, he stressed, the Philippines reiterates we did not and never lost ownership even of the artificial islands like those in Fiery Reef and Mischief Reef that China built within our country’s 200-mile EEZ.

“We have to domesticate international law and for the first time, we will now have a law rather than dakdak lang tayo ng dakdak (just talk a lot) in the past while China, perhaps, dedma lang tayo nila (only ignores us),” Sen. Tolentino pointed out.

“Let us not forget about the $900 million up to $1.5 billion of our country’s maritime resources – the fishes, our lapu-lapu, maya-maya, our coral reefs, etc.,” he cited.

Speaking of coral reefs, Sen. Tolentino last week filed a Senate Resolution that sought to investigate the damages caused reportedly by cyanide fishing around the Scarborough Shoal. This Resolution was referred for “inquiry in aid of legislation” by the Senate committee on environment chaired by veteran Senator Cynthia Villar.

Without accusing any particular culprit, Tolentino clarified that officials of our own Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will be invited to shed light on the state of bio-diversity in the affected fishing grounds. He noted with satisfaction that the President has already instructed the Department of Justice to conduct “internal investigations” into such reported cyanide fishing incidents.

“Whoever is the culprit must pay for the damages,” Tolentino demanded. He cited international “precedent” cases where the governments exacted damages from country-parties involved.

For now, we could only count upon the upcoming law bruited about to fully owning without a doubt and exploiting our WPS blue economy.

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