The US and the Spratlys


President Barack Obama’s latest declaration that China is bullying smaller countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, on the West Philippines Sea issue is the strongest American expression of concern over China’s expansionist conduct in the disputed area.  While Philippine and Vietnamese authorities are euphoric with Obama’s latest statement, it still has to be seen if the US is able and ready to counter Chinese imperialism in the West Philippine Sea.

The US policy now appears to be more cautious in dealing with China on this issue. But unlike its unequivocal policy that it will come to the assistance of Japan if China were to attack Senkaku Island, America’s current policy of taking a neutral position on the unresolved territorial disputes in the area appears unchanged.

The US position is because its national policy and interest in the West Philippine Sea remains unchanged. Since it “purchased” the Philippine Archipelago in 1899 from Spain, it has maintained that the metes and bounds of the Treaty of Paris refer only to land territories. This of course is inaccurate given that what was allegedly ceded by Spain to it was an archipelago, or a unity of land and water forming a united whole. Obviously, the Treaty of Paris is a Treaty of cession over both land and water territory.

In any case, the US has never advanced a claim either to any island or waters in the disputed Spratlys group of islands. In fact, in 1933, when France publicly laid a claim to the disputed area, only Japan, China, and even the United Kingdom issued formal protests, the latter on the ground that the islands were discovered by a British national and hence, its English name. This means that the US, since the inception of the controversy, has only been concerned about the freedom of navigation in the area, which today, is the second busiest sea-lane in the world. Almost all of the oil supply of China, Japan and the US coming from the Middle East passes through the area from the Gulf of Aden. This is why the latest expression of concern emanating from Obama should only be read in the context of the US national interest in the region, that is, to maintain freedom of navigation in the disputed and dangerous waters of the West Philippine Sea.

Related to the Obama expression of concern is the report by veteran journalists from Vera Files that through a note verbale, the Aquino administration has offered to drop the Philippines claim to Sabah in exchange for Malaysia’s support for the Philippines in its on-going spat with China on the West Philippines Sea.

To begin with, such a policy is wrong. This is because whether or not Malaysia wants to stand up to China, it simply has to. Recently, China has also been claiming areas very proximate to Malaysia as forming part of its territory. In any case, Malaysia is also among the five country claimants to the Spratlys group of islands. In other words, the Philippine government need not offer a quid pro quo for Malaysia’s support because the latter also has a legal interest in the controversy.

But the bigger legal issue arising from the note verbale is whether President Aquino, or any President for that matter, could renounce our claim to Sabah.

I am of the belief, since the proceeding of the Constitutional Commission is clear that Art 1 Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution contemplates that we continue to have title over Sabah. Through a referendum, we can surrender this claim. The President has no legal authority to do this alone. This is a high crime since it cedes part of the national territory to a foreign power.

The other troubling aspect that arose from the incident is a statement form Justice Secretary Leila De Lima who, for all intents and purposes, threatened Vera Files with criminal action since the publication of the note verabale was allegedly illegal. In this regard, I am reproducing a portion of the statement of the Center for International Law, which I chair, relevant to press freedom:

“We take exception to the veiled threat in the statement made yesterday by Secretary Leila De Lima that the Vera Files special report on a recent Note Verbale given by the Philippines to Malaysia over the Spratlys islands concerned a confidential matter that should have been kept as it is.

“In the first place, our Justice Secretary should be first to know that such a threat is in the nature of prior restraint with a chilling effect on speech, as held by the Supreme Court in the case filed by the late former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez against a predecessor of hers at the DOJ, the late Raul Gonzales.

“A mere press statement of a threat of prosecution coming from a government functionary, according to this 2008 Supreme Court decision, is unconstitutional precisely for that reason.

“As a former head of the Commission on Human Rights, we expect her to understand that Vera Files is simply doing what journalists ought to do well: report on matters of public interest, especially one where the integrity of the national territory of the Philippines is at stake, so that the citizens are properly apprised of the issues involved.”

Binay prevails


Kudos to Makati City Mayor Jun-Jun Binay for winning his legal battle against DILG’s Mar Roxas and the Office of the Ombudsman. Just last Monday, the Court of Appeals made permanent its earlier temporary restraining order which seeks to maintain the status quo. This time, the Appeals Court clarified that the status quo meant the situation prior to the service of the Ombudsman’s suspension order on the Mayor. This removes any and all doubts that the CA intended to maintain Mayor Binay in office despite the Ombudsman’s suspension order. This hence debunks the view of Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, who earlier opined that the CA’s TRO was moot and academic because meanwhile, the suspension order had allegedly already been served.

 I admittedly am not a big fan of the Philippine legal system. There’s the dismal 1-percent conviction rate for extra-legal killings before Philippine courts. There is the longest period of time in the world by which cases are heard by the courts, an average of five to seven years. There too is the perception of corruption amongst the ranks of public prosecutors and judges. But all told, the decision of the CA granting Mayor Binay injunctive relief was well-reasoned and consistent with jurisprudence. In brief, the CA ruled that since Mayor Binay had already been re-elected after the so-called City Hall Annex scam, all of his administrative liability, if any, is deemed extinguished by reason of his re-election. This is the principle of “condonation” and is premised on the fact that the people are sovereign. This is not a novel theory having been first recognized by the Supreme Court in the case of former Cagayan Governor Aguinaldo, and reiterated in the cases involving Governors Garcia and Salalima, all of whom were sought to be suspended similarly as Binay. This is why the principle is referred to as the “Aguinaldo rule”. The logic of the principle is that since the electorate decides who will serve them in an elective capacity, an erring official who has been re-elected is deemed “forgiven” by his constituents when despite the administrative lapse, he is re-elected. The Ombudsman’s position, mirrored by De Lima, is that the office has plenary powers to suspend officials which according to its legislative charter, is immediately executory and not subject to injunction. Here, the CA reasoned that there’s a difference between a suspension by way of penalty meted by the Ombudsman, and a preventive suspension preparatory to an administrative investigation. The former is immediately executory and not subject to injunctive relief. The latter though, and this is the suspension meted on Binay, is subject to judicial review. I find myself in accord with the line of reasoning adopted by the CA. In fact, in a case that I personally argued before the Supreme Court which sought to restraint the House leadership from filing an impeachment complaint against then-Chief Justice Hilario Davide, the Supreme Court, through the incumbent Ombudsman, ruled that our Court’s certiorari powers under the 1987 Constitution have  “cut the umbilical cord” between Philippine and  American jurisprudence. While American courts can opt to exercise judicial restraint, Philippine courts, under the 1987 Constitution, must decide cases involving alleged grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction. This means that our courts must always exercise jurisdiction where there is an allegation of grave abuse of discretion. This was the allegation of Mayor Binay and hence, the duty of the Court of Appeals to decide. The victory is temporary. In fact, the Supreme Court has already scheduled oral arguments on the petition of the Ombudsman against the CA’s order. What appears to be going in favor of Mayor Binay is the fact that the Ombudsman sought but was denied injunctive relief to restraint the CA from restraining the office from suspending Mayor Binay. The Court’s refusal to issue a TRO, although not a ruling on the merit, nonetheless is tantamount to recognizing the validity of the CA’s actions thus far. While the odds are still against Mayor Binay since the Ombudsman was a former colleague of the incumbent Justices of the Supreme Court, the latters denial of the former’s prayer for TRO is recognition that there is no urgency nor an irreparable injury in the event the CA is not restrained. Congratulations are this in order to Mayor Binay and his legal team! ** ** Congratulations too to the UP Law’s Moot Court team that won the world championship in the recently concluded Freedom of Expression Moot competition in Oxford University. The team bested over a hundred teams worldwide that competed in Oxford and in various regional championship rounds around the world. The problem of the moot is of extreme relevance to freedom of expression in today’s Internet age. Could states limit the freedom to curtail hate speech that has led to a riot that injured over a hundred individuals? At issue, too, was whether Internet service providers should incur liability for materials posted through them. The winning team is composed of Pauline Gairanod (adjudged the best speaker), who hails from Zamboanga City, Modesta Chungalao from Baguio City, Gil Anthony Aquino, Raphael “Apa” Pangalangan, Rachel Miranda, and Gemmo Fernandez. A testimonial in their honor will be held on Monday 10AM with no less than Chancellor  Micheal Tan in attendance. Good job, team!

Centerlaw twits De Lima veiled threat on Vera Files report


vera files

Statement of Prof. Harry L. Roque Jr., chair of the Center for International Law (Centerlaw), an NGO dedicated to the promotion of binding international legal norms in the Philippines and Asia:

“We take exception to the veiled threat in the statement made yesterday by Secretary Leila De Lima that the Vera Files special report on a recent Note Verbale given by the Philippines to Malaysia over the Spratlys islands concerned a confidential matter that should have been kept as it is.

“In the first place, our Justice Secretary should be first to know that such a threat is in the nature of prior restraint with a chilling effect on speech, as held by the Supreme Court in the case filed by the late former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez against a predecessor of hers at the DOJ, the late Raul Gonzales.

“A mere press statement of a threat of prosecution coming from a government functionary, according to this 2008 Supreme Court decision, is unconstitutional precisely for that reason.

“As a former head of the Commission on Human Rights, we expect her to understand that Vera Files is simply doing what journalists ought to do well: report on matters of public interest, especially one where the integrity of the national territory of the Philippines is at stake, so that the citizens are properly apprised of the issues involved.

“The documents unearthed by Verafiles in its journalistic sleuthing are clear enough and also belie Secretary De Lima’s claim of disinformation.

“Note Verbale No. 15-1979 sent to Malaysia, the basis of VERA Files’ story, stated that it is offering a review of the Aug. 4, 2009 protest (No. 000819) it filed with the United Nations. The Philippines’ August 2009 protest, contained in two pages, singles out North Borneo or the old name of Sabah.

“In this Protest, the Philippines took issue with an earlier joint submission by Vietnam and Malaysia for the extended continental shelf because it “lays claims on areas that are disputed not only because they overlap with that of the Philippines, but also because of the controversy arising from the territorial claims on some of the islands in the area including North Borneo.

“The 2009 Protest clearly disputed Malaysia’s use of North Borneo (the old name of Sabah subject of the Philippine territorial claim), as reference points for its baselines in determining the reach of its claim to an extended continental shelf.

“Had the Philippines kept silent on this joint submission, it would have meant that the Philippines has implicitly consented to the use of Sabah as a reference point for  Malaysia’s extended continental shelf claim, which is another way of saying that we are recognizing Malaysia’s ownership over Sabah.

The Note Verbale offers a Philippine review of its 2009 Protest if Malaysia agrees to two requests related to the South China Sea conflicting territorial claims.

The first request is for Malaysia to “confirm” that its claim of an extended continental shelf is “entirely from the mainland coast of Malaysia, and not from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands.”

The DFA also requested Malaysia to confirm that it “does not claim entitlement to maritime areas beyond 12 nautical miles from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands it claims.”

The offer by the Philippines of a review of its 2009 Protest is diplomatese for a quid pro quo arrangement. It appears to intimate that if Malaysia agreed to the proposal, the Philippines will withdraw or at least revise its Protest to the joint submission. In either case, it will clearly amount to a dilution, as Vera Files would put it, of our claim to Sabah.

This is without doubt a matter of the public interest. As the Vera Files story underlines, a matter as important as a big part of the Philippine national territory enshrined in the 1987 Constitution should not be bargained away by a mere Note Verbale without so much as a public discussion on its implications.”

Law of the jungle


Now it can be said. Despite being one of the world’s mega-cities, Metro Manila appears to be governed by the law of the jungle. It is a unique jurisdiction where the police, normally tasked with implementing judicial orders, are the first to defy them. It is unique since it’s possibly the only jurisdiction where cabinet members tasked with the promotion of justice consistently advocate disobedience of judicial orders.  This is why it is also the only place on earth where a suspended Police Chief can take orders from no less than the President himself.

What kind of insanity has come to our land?

I’m not at all familiar with the details of the suspension of Mayor Jun-Jun Binay. My knowledge of the incident is limited to what we read in the newspapers. I know that the Ombudsman recently decided to initiate preliminary investigation for plunder against the Mayor for the allegedly overpriced Makati City Hall Annex. This means that the Ombudsman HAS ONLY STARTED the process of finding if there is probable cause against the Mayor. Ergo, he remains absolutely innocent of the allegations against him and not just presumed to be innocent.

I also read that in connection with the administrative complaint against him filed together with the criminal complaint; the Ombudsman ordered the six-month temporary suspension of Mayor Binay. Here, the suspension is not by way of a penalty since the investigation process has only begun, but intended only to prevent the respondent from tampering with evidence. But like all orders, such suspension can only take effect if served on the respondent. Because this is an Order that affects the exercise of a popular mandate, the Mayor being an elective post, this Order must be served personally on the Mayor. This, I believe was never done partly because the process server of the Ombudsman could not penetrate the mass of people that gathered in City Hall who protested the temporary ouster. In lieu of personal service of the Order, the same was “posted” in the vicinity of the City Hall.

Again, while being a lawyer, I cannot claim to be an expert on all fields of law. Nonetheless, my knowledge of service of summons and notices, and more so, orders of suspension, is that they should be served personally on the respondent. The only instances where notice other than personal service is allowed is in actions against real property, so-called actions in rem, where the proceeding is against realty such as foreclosure of mortgages. Here, posting of notices in the property itself or summons by publication is allowed. The only other exception to personal service is in personal actions affecting persons and family relations where the respondent is outside of the country. In which case, summons to his last known address and summons by publication is allowed. I am not aware that an Order that would subvert the will of the sovereign people could be served by mere “posting”.

In any case, I also know as a lawyer that regardless of the merits of the case against Mayor Binay, the fact is the Court of Appeals, as part of the judiciary, a co-equal branch of government, issues an Order temporarily restraining the suspension of the Mayor, the co-equal Executive branch of government must not only comply with the Order but must also implement it. While the Courts have sheriffs to serve its Orders, the Courts nonetheless rely on the Executive, the latter mandated by the Constitution to implement our laws, to enforce its lawful orders. This is because while the Courts can issue Orders, it does not have a police force to implement its orders.

But in this megacity, the police apparently are the first to defy court orders. That is why without a doubt; this megacity is governed by the law of the jungle.

The Executive branch better think twice about the repercussion of its decision to defy the lawful Order of the Court of Appeals. Law forms part of a normative system because we want disputes settled peacefully and pursuant to the rule of law. We may not agree with Court Orders, but we should never openly defy them. The remedy for government is to question the TRO in the proper forum: in the CA itself or in the Supreme Court. It does not bode well that those tasked with the implementation of Court orders are the first to defy them.

Ironically, this is why the Philippines resorted to the rule of law in settling its dispute over the West Philippines Sea with the super-power China. We did so after mature contemplation that we are not in a position to resolve it using the law of the jungle: the sheer use of force. But when the same members of the Executive Branch resort to this same rule of the jungle domestically, not only do we send the message to our people that it is all right to take the law into their own hands. We also send the message to countries like China that we do not adhere to the rule of law, debunking the high moral grounds that we have taken in resolving our dispute in the West Philippines Sea.

Goodness gracious! Lets round up these beasts and lock them in cages come 2016!

This post first appeared on http://manilastandardtoday.com/2015/03/19/law-of-the-jungle/