I guess it’s inevitable that the issue of Itu Aba would surface yet again in the wake of the Philippines’ resounding victory in the South China Sea Arbitration. As I noted in that earlier post detailing what we won before the Arbitral Court, the island — occupied by Taiwan — was a sore point between Justice Francis Jardeleza (and his successor at the Office of the Solicitor General, Prof. Florin Hilbay), and Justice Antonio Carpio. The latter (with Chief Justice Sereno) even went as far as opposing the former’s appointment to the Supreme Court because of Jardeleza’s stance when he was Solicitor General. For background, click here and here.
A few days ago, Rappler came out with a piece recalling the Jardeleza-Hilbay tack on their alleged Itu Aba “miscalculation.”
Hilbay, now back at his old professor’s perch at the UP College of Law (funny, Jardeleza, Carpio and Sereno all served as professors at the College at some point in their legal careers), wrote a retort to Rappler’s rap. Rappler duly reported on his retort here.
This morning, I received a text from Prof. Hilbay expressing his reservations about the treatment his written statement had received in the Rappler news item. I obtained a copy of his statement and am posting it below, for your own benefit and appreciation:
(A PDF file of the statement and the Memorandum mentioned in it may be downloaded here).
21 July 2016 UP College of Law
Response to Ms. Hofileña and Ms. Vitug
By: Prof. Florin T. Hilbay, former Solicitor General (Philippines v. China)
I respond to Ms. Hofileña’s and Ms. Vitug’s Rappler piece accusing me (and Justice Francis Jardeleza) of “miscalculation.”
First. I do not suppose the writers consider themselves experts in the law of the sea, much less official participants with personal knowledge of the West Philippine Sea litigation. I am therefore amused at the accusatorial tone they have taken on previously undisclosed legal strategy which, in fact, resulted in an overwhelming victory. Whether they are adopting the opinion of any person officially or unofficially connected with the case is also not stated. I am therefore left to respond to conclusions based on gossip, even as they were written by people I consider respectable journalists.
Second. In the coming months and years, the nation will have an opportunity to look under the hood of this magnificent legal accomplishment. Thankfully, given the positive legal result, the challenge will be about proper documentation and accurate narration of how this result came about, not about who should be blamed for what. The room is big enough and the pages of history books (or even Facebook) sufficiently spacious to toast the contributions of women and men privileged enough to have had a direct or indirect connection with the case. The bucket can accommodate decent human beings, and there’s no need to reduce oneself into a crab.
Third. Given the magnitude of this case and the multi-layered controversies surrounding it, I consciously adopted a policy of keeping documents and having multiple witnesses. This should eliminate erroneous factual claims and reduce subjective elements in the narration of the history of this case, which I intend to write. I saw myself simultaneously as a participant and an observer. As the former, my goals were to achieve an efficient win, reduce the impact of potential losses, and protect the President. As the latter, I was an excited case biographer.
Fourth. I saw the Itu Aba issue as belonging to the baskets where there was a need to reduce the impact of a potential loss and protect the President. By now, people should be aware that the Itu Aba issue is one where the entire team’s level of confidence was not at its highest. This explains why that feature was not included in our “complaint” in the first place. My discomfort with the treatment of Itu Aba figured prominently in a 2014 Memorandum I sent to Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel (now Justice) Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa. This should be remarkably self- explanatory, and an interesting read.
I invite Ms. Hofileña and Ms. Vitug to reveal any other 2014 “official communication” from me to Malacanan.
Fifth. Ms. Hofileña and Ms. Vitug have a wildly mixed-up sequencing of events, which is to be expected from those who do not have official documents or had no direct and personal knowledge of events. Let me take the cudgels for them on one critical decision- point.
In the hearing on the merits last November 2015, the Tribunal made the Philippines grapple with a hypothetical: what happens if a feature (Itu Aba) were declared an island under UNCLOS (which therefore generates an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles from its coastline)? The original, proposed answer was that the Tribunal would retain jurisdiction to control, by some means, the conduct of the parties “pending agreement on delimitation or joint development arrangements.” I thought this was both novel and strange. This was the first time this theory was broached, and the proposal to softly offer “joint development arrangements” if we lose on the Itu Aba issue was problematic.
Witnesses to the agent’s discussion with foreign counsel, assuming they’re not deliberately forgetful, will remember two important points I repeatedly emphasized—
1) Commit to the wave. I did a short lecture on how surfers are able to catch big waves. Itu Aba is a wave we absolutely needed to catch, and we should not signal to the Tribunal that we think we might lose. We needed to focus our firepower on winning that issue instead of sheepishly offering “joint development arrangements” for when we lose. We should not, therefore, telegraph our punches.
2) Avoid impression of selling out. The Philippines, in this litigation, should not be seen as offering “joint development arrangements” as a second option or a compromise. For myself, I was particularly worried about being seen as inserting a very specific economic incentive as trade-off for losing the Itu Aba question. I told everyone “I will not be the Solicitor General who sold this case to China.”
Those who were in that meeting were former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario, Justice Francis Jardeleza, Justice Antonio Carpio, Ambassador Jaime Ledda, Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra, and the entire contingent of Foley & Hoag.
In the aftermath of that meeting, foreign counsel strengthened (even more) the arguments on Itu Aba, dropped “joint development,” and recast the Philippines’ post-loss scenario to not make it appear we were not confident about winning Itu Aba.
At the conclusion of the hearings, Paul Reichler and Bernard Oxman (who delivered the wonderfully powerful speech for that hypothetical) thanked and congratulated me for my intervention. On my flight back home to Manila, I emailed Prof. Oxman: “I am serious when I tell you that your speech on the third day will probably be remembered as one of the most important speeches on the South China Sea disputes, and I’ll surely remind everyone of that fact.”
I think we won the Itu Aba issue because everyone from the Philippine side and the foreign counsel’s side was professional enough to realize that our occasional disagreements in this case could lead, rather thankfully, to compromises over our strongly held opinions. Fortunately, the brew was sufficient to convince the Tribunal that our arguments on the various submissions were correct.
Moving forward, I think the wise attitude here is to celebrate the victory, not malign anybody’s contribution. Justice Jardeleza, always fond of quoting JFK, would usually remind me that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
I couldn’t care less if this victory had a million parents.