Supreme Court ruling challenges Duterte to protect South China Sea interests

Photo Credit:Mike Gonzalez/Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court of the Philippines issued a challenge to President Duterte after being petitioned by fishermen over environmental concerns in the South China Sea.

By John Pennington

Disputes in the South China Sea continue to cause problems for Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. His latest challenge in the contested waters comes not from China, nor his fellow ASEAN nations, but from his country’s Supreme Court (SC).

Fishermen complained about illegal Chinese activity in the area which is damaging the reefs and shoals they rely on to make a living. The fishermen took their petition to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), which asked the SC to intervene.

The SC has now ordered the country’s government to protect the reefs and the species that inhabit them. It issued a writ of kalikasan – upholding a citizen’s right to a healthy environment. The writ was addressed to government ministries, the coastguard and the police.

The Supreme Court has taken a bold decision  

The SC does not decide to challenge the administration lightly. It must find evidence of “grave abuse of discretion” to find favour with any petition it receives. It is not known for advising on or interfering with foreign policy.

President Rodrigo Duterte.
Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

The SC’s most recent landmark judgement was the ruling to impeach Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. On that occasion, Duterte got what he wanted, but this time the SC is putting pressure on him. The SC alleges that government inactivity in the region amounts to violating laws.

The palace says it will comply with the order. “The Executive Branch is duty-bound to implement all laws regardless of the existence of orders from a co-equal branch,” confirmed Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo. “We find no issue of enforcing our laws as well as performing such enforcement pursuant to our Constitution and principles of international law.”

A gap is emerging between Duterte and the public

The South China Sea dispute has been bubbling in the background. Duterte disregarded The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in 2016 that dismissed China’s baseless claims to contested reefs and shoals. The ruling even highlighted the “devastating and long-term damage to marine environment” China’s activity was causing.

Duterte has turned a blind eye to Beijing’s activity in the region to protect Chinese investment in the Philippines. However, the president sees it differently. He argues it would be pointless to confront a nation with such a significant military advantage.

US planes in the South China Sea
Photo Credit: Department of Defense

The SC’s acceptance of the petition and challenge to Duterte is reflective of a broader shift in public attitudes. Public support is mounting for a firmer stance against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.

In March, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity. Their complaint described how Chinese construction and fishing activities have affected the livelihoods of 320,000 Filipino fishermen.

A statement of support for the complaint quickly received more than 25,000 signatures. It also drew the backing of Vice-President Leni Robredo and other senators.

Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.
Photo Credit: US Dept of Defense

What happens next?

The SC has ordered the agencies identified in the petition to do their duty. However, there has been no fixed timeframe issued in which the government must act. The fishermen want regular updates about what the ministries and state organisations are doing.

The government is duty bound to accept the order. The office of the Solicitor General will answer the writ. However, it disputes claims that it neglected the matter. Panelo claimed the coastguard and other agencies are working hard under difficult circumstances. He clarified that the Philippines must tread carefully to avoid any diplomatic incidents in contested waters. He also cited the environment as a “top concern” for the palace.

Now is the time for Duterte to prove it. The writ could reveal whether he is prepared to take a firmer stance against China. He has already promised that he will not surrender. He also committed to discussing the maritime dispute with Beijing before he leaves office. This is an early opportunity for him to show that he meant what he said.