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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Kent Carpenter's Testimony Pivotal at International Tribunal

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The testimony of an Old Dominion University researcher was pivotal in a recent ruling by an international tribunal that China had violated the rights of the Philippines over disputed islands and reefs of the South China Sea.

The July 10 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, said China's act of building up remote reefs into much larger land forms - so that it could claim "historic rights" across much of the South China Sea - violated international law.

Kent Carpenter, professor of biological sciences, was asked to serve as an environmental impact consultant by the legal team representing the Philippine government in the dispute.

"I was chosen because of my long experience studying coral reefs of the Philippines, starting in 1975 as a Peace Corps volunteer," Carpenter said. "Nearly all the media coverage deals with the territorial dispute. The environmental side is hardly mentioned, and it constitutes a large part of the case."

The 33-year-old United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty guarantees unimpeded navigation for trade, oil exploration and fishing. But asserting what it has called ancient territorial rights to the South China Sea, China in recent years dredged the sea bottom to create and claim numerous sand islands atop reefs, some large enough to house military air bases.

The tribunal ruled that China's island-building activities violated UNCLOS, as did its moves to deny Filipinos access to their traditional fishing grounds. The panel also said China's environmental destruction was a breach of international law.

The ruling is expected to be largely symbolic, as it will be exceedingly difficult for the Philippines to assert its maritime rights against the much larger Chinese Navy. But experts say it could force China and the Philippines to re-enter negotiations, because other countries that border the South China Sea plan similar legal claims against China.

The South China Sea is one of the most ecologically diverse expanses of saltwater on the planet, but it faces heavy pressure from pollution and fishing.

Carpenter was asked to prepare two reports. The first examined evidence from the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources on illegal harvesting of threatened and endangered species on the disputed reefs.

"The evidence was clear that Chinese fishermen were harvesting threatened and endangered giant clams, corals, sharks, bony fishes and turtles," Carpenter said.

The first report was prepared before China began its massive island-building activities on seven reefs in the disputed areas. Carpenter was asked to prepare a second report on the impacts of the dredging and island building activities on the coral reefs. Carpenter presented the two reports in the Hague last November as part of four days of hearings.

A marine conservationist who has studied corals in the Philippines for decades, Carpenter manages the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Marine Biodiversity Unit, which examines threatened marine species.

The unit is conducting the first global review of the threat of extinction for marine vertebrate species, plants and selected invertebrates. The project, known as the Global Marine Species Assessment, includes a range of partners in compiling and analyzing existing data on approximately 20,000 marine species. It will determine their conservation status according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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