Duterte's stance on EEZ: Filipinos' lives more important than property

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President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R). FILE PHOTO.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 2) — President Rodrigo Duterte did not violate the Constitution when he allowed China to fish in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) because he was only doing his "prime duty" to protect the lives of Filipinos, his spokesperson said Tuesday.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo explained that the President only entered into the fishing agreement to avoid any conflict with China that could result in Filipinos getting hurt.

"Either they (critics) do not realize or they ignore the fact that as far as China is concerned, it has sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and any aggressive move by any country contrary to its claim of ownership is deemed an assault to its sovereignty and will be repelled by force," Panelo said in a media briefing.

Critics have questioned Duterte's agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping, allowing Chinese fishing in the country's EEZ, particularly Recto Bank or Reed Bank, an underwater feature being claimed by both Manila and Beijing. The Philippines' EEZ is part of China's nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated but Beijing insists on.

Vice President Leni Robredo and Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, among others, said that by allowing China in the Philippines' EEZ, Duterte failed to fulfill his constitutional duty to protect the country's natural resources under Section 7 or Article 12. This provision says, "The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens."

READ: Robredo seeks transparency in Duterte, Xi deal allowing China to fish in PH waters

Panelo, however claimed that this provision should be read "in relation to" Article 2, Section 4 which states "The prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people."

This means the Constitution "is actually designed to safeguard their (Filipinos') very existence and survivals because in the hierarchy of rights, the right to life takes precedence over the right to property," Panelo said.

While admitting that the Filipinos' right to life is more important than their right to the country's resources, Panelo stressed that the President is "not giving away" anything but is protecting both of these rights.

Duterte earlier said the exclusivity provision was "for the thoughtless and the senseless."

"The protection about economic rights, about the economic zone, resources? I am protecting the country and 110 Filipinos," the President told reporters last week. In response, Carpio stressed the framers of the 1987 Constitution followed the exclusivity provision from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty signed by 167 states including the Philippines and China. He said even China was reserving its entire EEZ exclusively to its citizens.

The Palace on Tuesday reiterated that enforcing the arbitral ruling could result in a war with China, whose friendship it has nurtured.

"The issue is how to go about getting the benefits without endangering the lives of our countrymen and bringing us to the precipice of war," Panelo said, adding that the government has been doing this through diplomatic negotiations.