MANILA - Two former Philippine government officials have filed a case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) holding China's President Xi Jinping accountable for a massive island-building push in the South China Sea which they charged has led to "the most massive, near permanent and devastating destruction of the environment in humanity's history".
China is not a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC, a fact President Rodrigo Duterte pointed out as he suggested the case was unlikely to prosper.
"The Philippines is a democratic country, and anybody can bring a suit against anybody. But whether or not it would prosper, or whether or not we have the jurisdiction, that's something else... Remember, China is not a member of the ICC," Mr Duterte told reporters.
In the complaint sent to ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former anti-graft court chief Conchita Morales said China's actions, under Mr Xi, were "atrocious" and constituted crimes against humanity.
"In implementing China's systematic plan to take over the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials have committed crimes within the jurisdiction of the court, which involve massive, near permanent and devastating environmental damage across nations," they said.
China has created seven artificial islands in the Spratly island chain in the southern half of the South China Sea. It also equipped these islands with runways, radar and communication facilities, and deployed missiles, artillery and other weapons systems on them.
To build the islands, China has had to dredge huge amounts of sand and coral reefs to add 1,300ha to the islands, reefs and atolls it occupies in the Spratlys.
Mr Del Rosario, when he was foreign secretary, shepherded the case the Philippines filed before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague challenging China's claims to over nearly all of the South China Sea.
In 2016, a five-man arbitral tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, striking down China's claims to economic rights over more than two-thirds of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways.
It also ruled that China's land reclamation in the Spratlys "had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species".
The tribunal also took China to task for allowing Chinese fishermen to harvest endangered sea turtles, coral and giant clams "on a substantial scale… (using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment)".
China has refused to recognise the 2016 ruling, and Mr Duterte, the Philippines' new mercurial leader who took office in June that year, decided not to press it as he pursued investments from Beijing to finance his ambitious infrastructure-building programme.
In their complaint with the ICC, Mr Del Rosario and Ms Morales also slammed China for lording over fishing grounds across the South China Sea.
"This has seriously undermined the food and energy security of the coastal states in the South China Sea, including the Philippines," they said.
Since Mr Duterte took office in 2016, China has given more room for Filipino fishermen venturing into contested waters.
Many of the fishermen have complained, however, that China continues to dictate terms to them, telling them where they can go and how long they can fish for.
Mr Del Rosario and Ms Morales urged the ICC to open a preliminary investigation into their complaint "if only so the court can apprise itself of Chinese crimes committed not only against the Filipino people, but also against people of other nations".
Their complaint was filed two days before the Philippines' withdrawal on March 17 from the treaty that created the ICC.
Mr Del Rosario said the ICC retains jurisdiction over crimes committed during the period when the Philippines was still part of the court.