Palace: No grounds to impeach Duterte over Benham Rise

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 15 2017 08:16 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a speech in Pasay. Erik De Castro, Reuters

MANILA – Malacañang on Wednesday said there are no grounds to impeach President Rodrigo Duterte over his recent statements about the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise.

“There are no grounds for impeachment. No treason, betrayal of public trust, bribery, graft and corruption, and high crime was committed,” said Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella in a statement.

“The President is fully committed to his constitutional duty to protect and defend the nation's interests, including those granted to us by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and other similar treaties which the Philippines is party to.”

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought to improve ties with China strained for years by the South China Sea dispute, has downplayed the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise, saying it was based on an “agreement.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who broke the news on Chinese ships' presence, was however surprised by Duterte’s comments as he was not aware of any agreement involving Benham Rise.

'LIKE TALKING TO BARANGAY OFFICIALS'

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a staunch Duterte critic, is seeking an investigation into the supposed “agreement,” saying the president could have committed an impeachable offense.

Trillanes has asked the Senate Committee on National Defense and other committees to investigate the reported deal of Duterte with China on Benham Rise.

"It shows how foreign policy is being made. Si President Duterte parang nakikipag-usap lang sa barangay officials (it's as if he is just talking to barangay officials)," Trillanes said in an interview on ANC's Early Edition.

Trillanes said, Duterte may be impeached if he allows any foreign firm or government, the Chinese for example, to explore or to exploit the resources within the Benham Rise.

"He cannot, and that's why it's an impeachable offense. It's treason according to some, but that is yet to be defined legally," he said.

"But for now, we can say that it's an impeachable offense for him to compromise our sovereign claims without letting Congress give him a mandate," he added.

Trillanes, author of the Archipelagic Baselines Law which has been submitted to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), asserted that the country has economic rights over these resources.

This, he said, despite China's correct statement the Philippines may not declare Benham Rise as its own territory.

"We don't have sovereign rights but in the sea bed the natural resources...it's covered within exclusive economic zone. We have economic rights over these areas--the seabed, all the resources within that particular area," he said, adding that even though China's statement is correct, "they don't have any claim at all in these areas."

Trillanes’ ally, Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, shared the senator’s views.

"Kung mayroong impeachment na ifa-file, that’s a culpable violation of the Constitution. Iyung ating territory, dapat pinapangalagaan natin. Kapag pangulo na mismo [ang] nag-violate, he should be [held] accountable," Alejano said.

Muntinlupa Representative Ruffy Biazon also filed a resolution seeking the government's strategic direction on the Benham Rise.
In an interview with ANC's Headstart, Biazon said lawmakers would feel "more secure" if they knew of the administration's strategy regarding the resource-rich area.

"The House of Representatives is not aware of what the strategic plan is with regard to Benham Rise. They might just not be telling us everything..We would feel more secure if we’re also informed," he said.

"It would be Congress which would be initiating appropriations for whichever activity to secure Benham rise," he added.

Benham Rise, an underwater plateau that stretches from the coasts of Cagayan and Bicol, was awarded to the country by the United Nations in 2012 after Manila successfully proved that it is part of Isabela province's extended continental shelf.

Though largely still unexplored, Benham Rise is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits, apart from the marine life that may be exploited from there.