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Case Digest: Magallona v. Ermita, G.R. No. 187167, 16 August 2011

Magallona v. Ermita, G.R. No. 187167, 16 August 2011

TOPIC: Elements of a State: National Territory


In 1961, Congress passed Republic Act No. 3046 (RA 3046)2 demarcating the maritime baselines of the Philippines as an archipelagic State.3 This law followed the framing of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in 1958 (UNCLOS I),4 codifying, among others, the sovereign right of States parties over their “territorial sea,” the breadth of which, however, was left undetermined. Attempts to fill this void during the second round of negotiations in Geneva in 1960 (UNCLOS II) proved futile. Thus, domestically, RA 3046 remained unchanged for nearly five decades, save for legislation passed in 1968 (Republic Act No. 5446 [RA 5446]) correcting typographical errors and reserving the drawing of baselines around Sabah in North Borneo.

In March 2009, Congress amended RA 3046 by enacting RA 9522, the statute now under scrutiny. The change was prompted by the need to make RA 3046 compliant with the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III),5 which the Philippines ratified on 27 February 1984.6 Among others, UNCLOS III prescribes the water-land ratio, length, and contour of baselines of archipelagic States like the Philippines7 and sets the deadline for the filing of application for the extended continental shelf.8 Complying with these requirements, RA 9522 shortened one baseline, optimized the location of some basepoints around the Philippine archipelago and classified adjacent territories, namely, the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and the Scarborough Shoal, as “regimes of islands” whose islands generate their own applicable maritime zones.


On the merits, whether RA 9522 is unconstitutional.


Petitioners next submit that RA 9522’s use of UNCLOS III’s regime of islands framework to draw the baselines, and to measure the breadth of the applicable maritime zones of the KIG, “weakens our territorial claim” over that area.27 Petitioners add that the KIG’s (and Scarborough Shoal’s) exclusion from the Philippine archipelagic baselines results in the loss of “about 15,000 square nautical miles of territorial waters,” prejudicing the livelihood of subsistence fishermen.28 A comparison of the configuration of the baselines drawn under RA 3046 and RA 9522 and the extent of maritime space encompassed by each law, coupled with a reading of the text of RA 9522 and its congressional deliberations, vis-à-vis the Philippines’ obligations under UNCLOS III, belie this view.

The configuration of the baselines drawn under RA 3046 and RA 9522 shows that RA 9522 merely followed the basepoints mapped by RA 3046, save for at least nine basepoints that RA 9522 skipped to optimize the location of basepoints and adjust the length of one baseline (and thus comply with UNCLOS III’s limitation on the maximum length of baselines). Under RA 3046, as under RA 9522, the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal lie outside of the baselines drawn around the Philippine archipelago. This undeniable cartographic fact takes the wind out of petitioners’ argument branding RA 9522 as a statutory renunciation of the Philippines’ claim over the KIG, assuming that baselines are relevant for this purpose.

Petitioners’ assertion of loss of “about 15,000 square nautical miles of territorial waters” under RA 9522 is similarly unfounded both in fact and law. On the contrary, RA 9522, by optimizing the location of basepoints, increased the Philippines’ total maritime space (covering its internal waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone) by 145,216 square nautical miles, as shown in the table below:


Thus, as the map below shows, the reach of the exclusive economic zone drawn under RA 9522 even extends way beyond the waters covered by the rectangular demarcation under the Treaty of Paris. Of course, where there are overlapping exclusive economic zones of opposite or adjacent States, there will have to be a delineation of maritime boundaries in accordance with UNCLOS III.

Further, petitioners’ argument that the KIG now lies outside Philippine territory because the baselines that RA 9522 draws do not enclose the KIG is negated by RA 9522 itself. Section 2 of the law commits to text the Philippines’ continued claim of sovereignty and jurisdiction over the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal:

SEC. 2. The baselines in the following areas over which the Philippines likewise exercises sovereignty and jurisdiction shall be determined as “Regime of Islands” under the Republic of the Philippines consistent with Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):

  1. a) The Kalayaan Island Group as constituted under Presidential Decree No. 1596 and
  2. b) Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal. (Emphasis supplied)

Had Congress in RA 9522 enclosed the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal as part of the Philippine archipelago, adverse legal effects would have ensued. The Philippines would have committed a breach of two provisions of UNCLOS III. First, Article 47 (3) of UNCLOS III requires that “[t]he drawing of such baselines shall not depart to any appreciable extent from the general configuration of the archipelago.” Second, Article 47 (2) of UNCLOS III requires that “the length of the baselines shall not exceed 100 nautical miles,” save for three per cent (3%) of the total number of baselines which can reach up to 125 nautical miles.

Although the Philippines has consistently claimed sovereignty over the KIG32 and the Scarborough Shoal for several decades, these outlying areas are located at an appreciable distance from the nearest shoreline of the Philippine archipelago,33 such that any straight baseline loped around them from the nearest basepoint will inevitably “depart to an appreciable extent from the general configuration of the archipelago.”

The principal sponsor of RA 9522 in the Senate, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, took pains to emphasize the foregoing during the Senate deliberations:

What we call the Kalayaan Island Group or what the rest of the world call[] the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal are outside our archipelagic baseline because if we put them inside our baselines we might be accused of violating the provision of international law which states: “The drawing of such baseline shall not depart to any appreciable extent from the general configuration of the archipelago.” So sa loob ng ating baseline, dapat magkalapit ang mga islands. Dahil malayo ang Scarborough Shoal, hindi natin masasabing malapit sila sa atin although we are still allowed by international law to claim them as our own.

This is called contested islands outside our configuration. We see that our archipelago is defined by the orange line which [we] call[] archipelagic baseline. Ngayon, tingnan ninyo ang maliit na circle doon sa itaas, that is Scarborough Shoal, itong malaking circle sa ibaba, that is Kalayaan Group or the Spratlys. Malayo na sila sa ating archipelago kaya kung ilihis pa natin ang dating archipelagic baselines para lamang masama itong dalawang circles, hindi na sila magkalapit at baka hindi na tatanggapin ng United Nations because of the rule that it should follow the natural configuration of the archipelago.34 (Emphasis supplied)

Similarly, the length of one baseline that RA 3046 drew exceeded UNCLOS III’s limits.1avvphi1 The need to shorten this baseline, and in addition, to optimize the location of basepoints using current maps, became imperative as discussed by respondents:

[T]he amendment of the baselines law was necessary to enable the Philippines to draw the outer limits of its maritime zones including the extended continental shelf in the manner provided by Article 47 of [UNCLOS III]. As defined by R.A. 3046, as amended by R.A. 5446, the baselines suffer from some technical deficiencies, to wit:

  1. The length of the baseline across Moro Gulf (from Middle of 3 Rock Awash to Tongquil Point) is 140.06 nautical miles x x x. This exceeds the maximum length allowed under Article 47(2) of the [UNCLOS III], which states that “The length of such baselines shall not exceed 100 nautical miles, except that up to 3 per cent of the total number of baselines enclosing any archipelago may exceed that length, up to a maximum length of 125 nautical miles.”
  2. The selection of basepoints is not optimal. At least 9 basepoints can be skipped or deleted from the baselines system. This will enclose an additional 2,195 nautical miles of water.
  3. Finally, the basepoints were drawn from maps existing in 1968, and not established by geodetic survey methods. Accordingly, some of the points, particularly along the west coasts of Luzon down to Palawan were later found to be located either inland or on water, not on low-water line and drying reefs as prescribed by Article 47.35

Hence, far from surrendering the Philippines’ claim over the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal, Congress’ decision to classify the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal as “‘Regime[s] of Islands’ under the Republic of the Philippines consistent with Article 121″36 of UNCLOS III manifests the Philippine State’s responsible observance of its pacta sunt servanda obligation under UNCLOS III. Under Article 121 of UNCLOS III, any “naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide,” such as portions of the KIG, qualifies under the category of “regime of islands,” whose islands generate their own applicable maritime zones.

Statutory Claim Over Sabah under RA 5446 Retained

Petitioners’ argument for the invalidity of RA 9522 for its failure to textualize the Philippines’ claim over Sabah in North Borneo is also untenable. Section 2 of RA 5446, which RA 9522 did not repeal, keeps open the door for drawing the baselines of Sabah:

Section 2. The definition of the baselines of the territorial sea of the Philippine Archipelago as provided in this Act is without prejudice to the delineation of the baselines of the territorial sea around the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty. (Emphasis supplied)

UNCLOS III and RA 9522 not Incompatible with the Constitution’s Delineation of Internal Waters

As their final argument against the validity of RA 9522, petitioners contend that the law unconstitutionally “converts” internal waters into archipelagic waters, hence subjecting these waters to the right of innocent and sea lanes passage under UNCLOS III, including overflight. Petitioners extrapolate that these passage rights indubitably expose Philippine internal waters to nuclear and maritime pollution hazards, in violation of the Constitution.

Whether referred to as Philippine “internal waters” under Article I of the Constitution or as “archipelagic waters” under UNCLOS III (Article 49 [1]), the Philippines exercises sovereignty over the body of water lying landward of the baselines, including the air space over it and the submarine areas underneath. UNCLOS III affirms this:

Article 49. Legal status of archipelagic waters, of the air space over archipelagic waters and of their bed and subsoil. –

  1. The sovereignty of an archipelagic State extends to the waters enclosed by the archipelagic baselines drawn in accordance with article 47, described as archipelagic waters, regardless of their depth or distance from the coast.
  2. This sovereignty extends to the air space over the archipelagic waters, as well as to their bed and subsoil, and the resources contained therein.

x x x x

  1. The regime of archipelagic sea lanes passage established in this Part shall not in other respects affect the status of the archipelagic waters, including the sea lanes, or the exercise by the archipelagic State of its sovereignty over such waters and their air space, bed and subsoil, and the resources contained therein. (Emphasis supplied)

The fact of sovereignty, however, does not preclude the operation of municipal and international law norms subjecting the territorial sea or archipelagic waters to necessary, if not marginal, burdens in the interest of maintaining unimpeded, expeditious international navigation, consistent with the international law principle of freedom of navigation. Thus, domestically, the political branches of the Philippine government, in the competent discharge of their constitutional powers, may pass legislation designating routes within the archipelagic waters to regulate innocent and sea lanes passage. Indeed, bills drawing nautical highways for sea lanes passage are now pending in Congress.

In the absence of municipal legislation, international law norms, now codified in UNCLOS III, operate to grant innocent passage rights over the territorial sea or archipelagic waters, subject to the treaty’s limitations and conditions for their exercise. Significantly, the right of innocent passage is a customary international law, thus automatically incorporated in the corpus of Philippine law. No modern State can validly invoke its sovereignty to absolutely forbid innocent passage that is exercised in accordance with customary international law without risking retaliatory measures from the international community.

The fact that for archipelagic States, their archipelagic waters are subject to both the right of innocent passage and sea lanes passage does not place them in lesser footing vis-à-vis continental coastal States which are subject, in their territorial sea, to the right of innocent passage and the right of transit passage through international straits. The imposition of these passage rights through archipelagic waters under UNCLOS III was a concession by archipelagic States, in exchange for their right to claim all the waters landward of their baselines, regardless of their depth or distance from the coast, as archipelagic waters subject to their territorial sovereignty. More importantly, the recognition of archipelagic States’ archipelago and the waters enclosed by their baselines as one cohesive entity prevents the treatment of their islands as separate islands under UNCLOS III. Separate islands generate their own maritime zones, placing the waters between islands separated by more than 24 nautical miles beyond the States’ territorial sovereignty, subjecting these waters to the rights of other States under UNCLOS III.

Petitioners’ invocation of non-executory constitutional provisions in Article II (Declaration of Principles and State Policies)48 must also fail. Our present state of jurisprudence considers the provisions in Article II as mere legislative guides, which, absent enabling legislation, “do not embody judicially enforceable constitutional rights x x x.” Article II provisions serve as guides in formulating and interpreting implementing legislation, as well as in interpreting executory provisions of the Constitution. Although Oposa v. Factoran treated the right to a healthful and balanced ecology under Section 16 of Article II as an exception, the present petition lacks factual basis to substantiate the claimed constitutional violation. The other provisions petitioners cite, relating to the protection of marine wealth (Article XII, Section 2, paragraph 251 ) and subsistence fishermen (Article XIII, Section 752 ), are not violated by RA 9522.

In fact, the demarcation of the baselines enables the Philippines to delimit its exclusive economic zone, reserving solely to the Philippines the exploitation of all living and non-living resources within such zone. Such a maritime delineation binds the international community since the delineation is in strict observance of UNCLOS III. If the maritime delineation is contrary to UNCLOS III, the international community will of course reject it and will refuse to be bound by it.

UNCLOS III favors States with a long coastline like the Philippines. UNCLOS III creates a sui generis maritime space – the exclusive economic zone – in waters previously part of the high seas. UNCLOS III grants new rights to coastal States to exclusively exploit the resources found within this zone up to 200 nautical miles.53 UNCLOS III, however, preserves the traditional freedom of navigation of other States that attached to this zone beyond the territorial sea before UNCLOS III.

RA 9522 and the Philippines’ Maritime Zones

Petitioners hold the view that, based on the permissive text of UNCLOS III, Congress was not bound to pass RA 9522.54 We have looked at the relevant provision of UNCLOS III55 and we find petitioners’ reading plausible. Nevertheless, the prerogative of choosing this option belongs to Congress, not to this Court. Moreover, the luxury of choosing this option comes at a very steep price. Absent an UNCLOS III compliant baselines law, an archipelagic State like the Philippines will find itself devoid of internationally acceptable baselines from where the breadth of its maritime zones and continental shelf is measured. This is recipe for a two-fronted disaster: first, it sends an open invitation to the seafaring powers to freely enter and exploit the resources in the waters and submarine areas around our archipelago; and second, it weakens the country’s case in any international dispute over Philippine maritime space. These are consequences Congress wisely avoided.

The enactment of UNCLOS III compliant baselines law for the Philippine archipelago and adjacent areas, as embodied in RA 9522, allows an internationally-recognized delimitation of the breadth of the Philippines’ maritime zones and continental shelf. RA 9522 is therefore a most vital step on the part of the Philippines in safeguarding its maritime zones, consistent with the Constitution and our national interest.



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