Benham Rise and the Philippines’ Territorial Rights

“Benham Rise is part of Philippine territory. We must exercise our sovereignty over this area and assert our rights. The immediate creation of a management framework to ensure the protection of this special place and the conservation of its marine resources is a compelling first step.”

– Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice-president for Oceana Philippines.

Benham Rise is a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau located near Aurora. It was confirmed an official part of the Philippines’ continental shelf in 2012 by the United Nations, by the power vested in the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). It was the country’s very first successfully validated claim under UNCLOS.

A very particular distinction has to be made and noted, however: the ruling states that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the area, but not full sovereignty. This means that while Benham Rise is a part of the Philippines’ continental shelf, it is not a part of the country’s national territory.

So what control, then, does the Philippines have over the continental shelf?

According to Articles 77 to 81 of the UNCLOS, “a coastal nation has control of all resources on or under its continental shelf, living or not, but no control over any living organisms above the shelf that are beyond its exclusive economic zone.” The Philippines, therefore, has the sovereign right to explore and exploit the oil, gas, and other mineral resources in Benham Rise as part of its extended continental shelf (ECS).

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio explained the rights of other countries to conduct certain activities in the Benham Rise, which are limited to:

  • fishery research, because the fish in the ECS belongs to no one;
  • survey on water salinity and water currents, because the water column in the ECS belongs to everyone; and
  • depth soundings for navigational purposes, because there is freedom of navigation in the ECS.

The Philippine government has sent numerous expeditions to the region to study its resources. Last May 2016, Oceana, the earth’s largest NGO working on ocean conservation, went with the University of the Philippines, the Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy, and government scientists from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, for an expedition to Benham Bank — the shallowest portion of the Rise.

The fundamental position of the Philippines regarding the extent of its territorial and maritime boundaries and its sovereign rights over its islands is something that should be properly explained to the people. It is their right to know, and it helps to avoid unnecessary confusion and misinformation.

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