Sereno: Tri-party probe of Recto Bank incident 'overt surrender of sovereignty'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno on Saturday, June 22, urged Filipinos to "reject" a tri-party investigation into the sinking of a Philippine boat in Recto Bank (Reed Bank) pushed by the Duterte administration and China.

Sereno issued the statement after Malacañang announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had agreed to a joint probe of the incident with China and a neutral third party which has yet to be identified.

"This is an act of overt surrender of our sovereignty. Henceforth, any injury to any Filipino – whether fisherfolk, tourist, science researcher, student, soldier – caused by a foreign vessel or national in Philippine waters, can henceforth be decided by foreign countries, with the Philippine government itself but a participant," she said.

The incident took place near Recto Bank, an oil-rich underwater reef formation that belongs to the Philippines but is coveted by China.

“The incident happened in Philippine waters, to Filipino citizens, whose laws immediately apply, and where jurisdiction, unless surrendered, vests exclusively in Philippine courts or appropriate administrative agencies,” said Sereno.

The Philippines' fisheries code empower the Duterte government to make a summary finding and fine the Chinese vessel up to $1,000,000 for just being in Recto Bank where the Philippines enjoys exclusive sovereign rights.

China has admitted that it was a Chinese vessel that hit a Filipino ship, but claimed it was a nothing more than an accident at sea. The Duterte government has echoed this statement, with the President himself describing it as a "litte maritime accident."

The Chinese vessel abandoned the Filipino crewmen in their sinking boat, and were rescued by a Vietnamese vessel after two members paddled to the latter to seek help. (READ: Bayanihan at sea: How fellow Filipinos helped rescue Gem-Ver and its crew)


Sereno said that with the Duterte government and China both saying it was a mere maritime accident, the addition of a third party was useless.

“A neutral third party is relevant only when there are two contradictory sides to a dispute that must be balanced, otherwise if the two sides are already in agreement, the third party is useful only to deodorize the outcome,” said Sereno.

According to Sereno, the addition of a third party was only for show and would reduce the Philippines to nothing but “a mere participant” in an investigation that should have been exclusively Filipino.

Sereno called on Filipinos to join  "peaceful" mass actions, fora, and other lobbying efforts to rally behind the rights of the Filipino fishermen and Philippine sovereignty.

“What is needed now is to employ all peaceful means - prayers, petitions, letters, lobbying with legislators, discussion fora, organized mass actions - to fight for Filipino honor. If our government will not do it for us, let's do it ourselves,” she said.

'Listen to Locsin' 

In a separate statement on Saturday, opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros called on Duterte to “listen to his own DFA Secretary,” referring to Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr who had rejected a joint probe.

“President Duterte should listen to his own DFA Secretary. The Philippines should not be a willing party to any joint investigation whose goal is to deny that an injustice has been committed against our people within our territorial waters," said Hontiveros.

“A joint investigation trenches on each other’s sovereignty,” Locsin had said, a lone opposition in the Cabinet as other key Duterte officials support the joint probe.

Editor's note: An earlier version of the article said the Philippines can fine China up to $200,000, the amount stated in the 1998 version of the fisheries code. The law was amended in 2015, increasing the maximum amount to $1 million.

Related stories, in-depth reports, analyses, videos, podcasts: The sinking of a Philippine boat in West Philippine Sea

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.