Why Sovereignty Should Concern Every Filipino Today

By Joy Aceron*

I never like the topic of state and sovereignty because I find it a macho topic. Who owns what, who has dominion over which, wars, violence, control and authority. In the age of migration crisis, this obsession over national borders, which are artificial and products of violent and oppressive colonialism anyway, discussions that assert sovereignty are the least of my concern. I would rather focus on governance and delivery of services by the government. 

But the recent actions (and inactions) of the Duterte administration vis-a-vis China’s action in the Philippines puts this topic front and center in Philippine politics. When the Duterte government refused to protect the fisherfolks victimized by Chinese aggression in the Recto Bank, sovereignty has become an everyday politics issue confronting ordinary Filipinos. 

I thought it is useful to review the basic concepts of this issue to bring the question of sovereignty and West Philippine Sea as subjects of importance for every Filipino. 

What is Sovereignty? 

One of the first topics learned in Political Science is sovereignty. Sovereignty is an element of a state, along with territory, people and government. These make a state a state and hence signals that the government has the only legitimate use of violence in its territory. 

This monopoly over legitimate violence is crucial to ensuring the rule of law not only when and if the people of a nation violate the law, but also when and if another country violates the law of another country. The latter is not only about a question of rule of law, it is an issue of who rules the land in the first place. That’s sovereignty. 

What are Governments For? 

Why does it matter who rules? Our governments have been the problem for so long that perhaps we have forgotten why they are there in the first place. Let us review. 

Governments possess powers supposedly more than anyone or anything in a given land because people have consented to it. People have given up some of their freedom so that an entity called government is empowered to do something about the problems and issues collectively faced by the people. This is the reason public office is a public trust. 

Governments are there to serve and protect the people who entrusted it with its powers. Governments have the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence to assert the rule of law and sovereignty as instruments to protect its people, territory and for it to govern effectively and efficiently. Government asserts its legitimacy to be the government of the land because that’s how it protects its people. 

In other words, sovereignty is not about ownership of lands per se. Territorial boundaries are artificial and colonial after all. It is about a government and its people having something secured by international agreements and solidarity that it can utilize to protect its people and as take off point to build solidarity to the world. 

Sovereignty is about Governments Protecting its People

Protection of lands and natural resources is caring for the people. Governments need to protect their lands and natural resources so that these can sustain and support the people, especially in instances when those who benefit from these lands and natural resources are ordinary citizens and the poor who have no other means. This is especially crucial in developing/ underdeveloped nations, like the Philippines. The premise is not to deprive as an act of aggression. The principle is politics of care and justice that should guide international relations. 

Take for instance the fisherfolk victimized by Chinese aggression at Recto Bank. That part of the sea feed them and their family. It gives them work, a sense of dignity. They need to be protected when they earn a living. They expect that from their government. Because if not, who else will protect them? If it’s not the government, what is their government for then?

An Alternative Approach to Development 

Government’s assertion of sovereignty over lands and natural resources is also important because intrusion and extractive activities of foreign entities, of those from afar, tend to be damaging, exploitative and unsustainable. This has been so over centuries when it comes to natural resources, knowledge and people - arguably one cause of the global climate crisis and environmental catastrophe that we face. This is is why there has been a search for alternative paradigms of development where those who are closest to the ground assert leadership of change and development. 

For example, the idea behind the community approach to management of lands and natural resources is that those who are closest to the environment would be best to take care of it because that’s taking care of their home and source of living. The idea behind the empowerment of indigenous peoples and cultures in development is an admission that those who have been in the lands the longest know the land better and know how to take care of it better. The idea behind people, community,  grassroots-driven development is for those on the ground to drive and lead change, instead of those at the international and the top. 

There is a search of an alternative to top-down, intrusive and interventionist approach to development because those who go to a place only to make money and leave it once they are done tend to destroy it. This is the kind of development that exploits, is unjust and unsustainable. Such is so because those who use the resources do not take the source as their own, as part of them or close to them. This is likely what we are seeing as a result of Chinese intrusion in the West Philippine Sea. 

The government needs to reclaim being the government of this country that protects and cares for its people by asserting and advancing Philippine sovereignty on the West Philippine Sea. Filipinos need to remind the Duterte government of what their being the government for and who ultimately owns the power that those in government temporarily hold. 

*Joy Aceron is Convenor-Director of Government Watch (www.g-watch.org) and Research Fellow-Adviser at Accountability Research Center in School of International Service of American University (www.accountabilityresearch.org).