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Declare Spratlys an International Marine Reserve

Antonio A Oposa Jr

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'Let us change the dimension of the debate. Small thinking is 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'

Dear Mr. President:
I respectfully write as an ordinary Filipino citizen frustrated that a certain neighbor has been acting like a bully, with us on the receiving end. Aside from its incursions into what we claim as our territory, the people from this country have been capturing endangered wildlife species, in violation of national and international law. If only for that, we need to take action.
The minute we try to confront this bully, it confronts us with its overwhelming military might. It cannot even keep their word on easing tensions.
While we may not have the military hardware to overcome our shame and punish this country for its impunity and duplicity, let us not forget that we have the moral might to make things right.

We must initiate a series of legal actions against this government. After all, legal action is nothing more than a continuation of diplomacy. Actions may be available in the International Court of Justice, the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), and in the other dispute resolution forums that exist today.

The Philippines has some of the world’s top international legal experts – people like former Justice Florentino Feliciano, Senator Miriam Santiago, former Deans Merlin Magallona and  Raul Pangalangan, and Professors Harry Roque and Jay Batongbacal of the UP College of Law. And there is Dean Sedfrey Candelaria of the Ateneo College of Law and Dean Antonio La Viña of the Ateneo School of Government, to name only a few. They can help us think through our legal and meta-legal options.
But action must be taken to strike back, using the sword of reason and the power of the Law as our weapons of choice.

Change dimension of debate
However, may we respectfully suggest that instead of fighting over these few pieces of land that make up the Spratly Islands, let us change the dimension of the debate. Small thinking is 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. Big thinking is that instead of fighting like children over a piece of candy, let us bring the debate to an altogether different plane. Let us start diplomatic and legal initiatives to have the entire West Philippine Sea (a.k.a. the South China Sea) as well as the Spratly Islands declared an International Marine Reserve.
To be sure, this will not benefit a single country for the present. Rather, it will be of benefit to all countries and to all peoples today and in the generations yet to come. We can also work towards inscribing it as a Unesco Natural Heritage Site.
Changing the debate will elevate the discussion to a very high moral plane. In the mid 1980s, the Filipinos showed the world how to wage a non-violent revolution. We did not fight a revolution with guns, we fought it with flowers and music. The world watched, and then even copied our example. For that, the symbol of this non-violent revolution received the Asian equivalent of the Nobel peace prize.
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 not fight fire with fire, rather we will fight it with water. In the early part of the 20th century, one of the great men of Asia showed us how to do it, how to use the power of moral might against military might. This man led a people’s non-violent resistance against what was then a great military power and brought it to its knees.
Spratlys: International Marine Reserve
May we respectfully reiterate the suggestion for the Philippines to initiate a move to declare the entire Spratly Islands and the West Philippine Sea an international marine reserve and nature park. By doing that, we will not directly antagonize any of the claimant countries. Instead, the Philippines will be taking the moral high road, and thereby earn the respect of the world that is increasingly more environmentally aware. Rather than fight with the 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, in fact, most welcome because it will spark a worldwide debate. It will show to the world how beautiful is the prospect of having an international marine park for peace. The Philippines will surely have the high moral ground. Besides, resistance from other claimant countries will not look good in the pages of history.
But for the Philippines, every effort exerted will be attuned to the desires of the world community. As a matter of fact, the Spratly Islands can even be an international observation center for the adverse effects of global warming on coral reefs and marine life. Together with the claimant countries and other 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 — known as the “Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity on Earth.”  Precisely because we are the most gifted of the seas, we have the credibility and the responsibility to advocate for its conservation not only for today but for all time.

    Conservation of the living resources
    “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 [UNCLOS]).

    Reservation of the high seas for peaceful purposes
    “The high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes. (Article 88)

    Invalidity of claims of sovereignty over the high seas
    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 question to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Presidential proclamation
For a start, and to show that you are serious, you can jumpstart the process by issuing a presidential proclamation declaring the areas of the claimed Spratly Islands and its 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 the marine life for the benefit of future generations of humankind.
After having done this, or simultaneously with the declaration of our claimed islands and its surrounding seas as a protected areas, 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 would 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 t o look at the problem of the Spratly Islands as an opportunity.  Again, it is an opportunity — not for intense competition — for more resources for the present, but as an opportunity 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 big and bad neighborhood toughie. Small as we are, we must show to ourselves and to 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 them 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 strive for the “greater good for the greatest number for the longest time.”

Thank you in anticipation of your kind attention, Sir, as I trust that this letter finds you in good health and spirits.

Very truly yours,

Antonio A. Oposa Jr.

(Editor’s note: Hailed as one of Asia’s leading voices on environmental law, Atty Oposa is a 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee. He sent this letter to the President on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. He kindly granted us permission to print it.)

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