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Arigo vs Swift

Case Digest GR 206510 Sept 14, 2014

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 suit.
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
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
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.