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Arigo vs Swift

Case Digest GR 206510 Sept 14, 2014

Full Text

In 2013, the USS Guardian of the US Navy ran aground on an area near the Tubbataha Reefs, a
marine habitat of which entry and certain human activities are prevented and afforded protection
by a Philippine law. The grounding incident prompted the petitioners to seek for issuance of Writ
of Kalikasan with TEPO from the SC.

Among those impleaded are US officials in their capacity as commanding officers of the US
Navy. As petitioners argued, they were impleaded because there was a waiver of immunity from
suit between US and PH pursuant to the VFA terms.

Petitioners claimed that the grounding, salvaging and post-salvaging operations of the USS
Guardian violated their constitutional rights to a balanced and healthful ecology since these
events caused and continue to cause environmental damage of such magnitude as to affect other
provinces surrounding the Tubbataha Reefs. Aside from damages, they sought a directive from
the SC for the institution of civil, administrative and criminal suits for acts committed in
violation of environmental laws and regulations in connection with the grounding incident. They
also prayed for the annulment of some VFA provisions for being unconstitutional.

Issue 1: W/N the US Government has given its consent to be sued through the VFA

No. The general rule on states immunity from suit applies in this case.

First, any waiver of State immunity under the VFA pertains only to criminal jurisdiction and not
to special civil actions such as for the issuance of the writ of kalikasan. Hence, contrary to
petitioners claim, the US government could not be deemed to have waived its immunity from

Second, the US respondents were sued in their official capacity as commanding officers of the
US Navy who have control and supervision over the USS Guardian and its crew. Since the
satisfaction of any judgment against these officials would require remedial actions and the
appropriation of funds by the US government, the suit is deemed to be one against the US itself.
Thus, the principle of State Immunity in correlation with the principle of States as sovereign
equals par in parem non habet non imperium bars the exercise of jurisdiction by the court
over their persons.

Issue 2: W/N the US government may still be held liable for damages caused to the
Tubbataha Reefs

Yes. The US government is liable for damages in relation to the grounding incident under the
customary laws of navigation.
The conduct of the US in this case, when its warship entered a restricted area in violation of RA
10067 and caused damage to the TRNP reef system, brings the matter within the ambit of Article
31 of the UNCLOS. While historically, warships enjoy sovereign immunity from suit as
extensions of their flag State, Art. 31 of the UNCLOS creates an exception to this rule in cases
where they fail to comply with the rules and regulations of the coastal State regarding passage
through the latters internal waters and the territorial sea.

Although the US to date has not ratified the UNCLOS, as a matter of long-standing policy, the
US considers itself bound by customary international rules on the traditional uses of the
oceans, which is codified in UNCLOS.

As to the non-ratification by the US, it must be noted that the US refusal to join the UNCLOS
was centered on its disagreement with UNCLOS regime of deep seabed mining (Part XI) which
considers the oceans and deep seabed commonly owned by mankind. Such has nothing to do
with the acceptance by the US of customary international rules on navigation. (Justice Carpio)

Hence, non-membership in the UNCLOS does not mean that the US will disregard the rights of
the Philippines as a Coastal State over its internal waters and territorial sea. It is thus expected of
the US to bear international responsibility under Art. 31 in connection with the USS Guardian
grounding which adversely affected the Tubbataha reefs. ##

Other Issues

Claim for Damages Caused by Violation of Environmental Laws Must be Filed Separately

The invocation of US federal tort laws and even common law is improper considering that it is
the VFA which governs disputes involving US military ships and crew navigating Philippine
waters in pursuance of the objectives of the agreement.

As it is, the waiver of State immunity under the VFA pertains only to criminal jurisdiction and
not to special civil actions. Since jurisdiction cannot be had over the respondents for being
immuned from suit, there is no way damages which resulted from violation of environmental
laws could be awarded to petitioners.

In any case, the Rules on Writ of Kalikasan provides that a criminal case against a person
charged with a violation of an environmental law is to be filed separately. Hence, a ruling on the
application or non-application of criminal jurisdiction provisions of the VFA to a US personnel
who may be found responsible for the grounding of the USS Guardian, would be premature and
beyond the province of a petition for a writ of Kalikasan.
Challenging the Constitutionality of a Treaty Via a Petition for the Issuance of Writ of Kalikasan is Not Proper

The VFA was duly concurred in by the Philippine Senate and has been recognized as a treaty by
the US as attested and certified by the duly authorized representative of the US government. The
VFA being a valid and binding agreement, the parties are required as a matter of international
law to abide by its terms and provisions. A petition under the Rules on Writ of Kalikasan is not
the proper remedy to assail the constitutionality of its provisions.