POSTSCRIPT / September 24, 2002 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Jail Chinese poachers, expel their ambassador

WHEN TO STAND FIRM: Malacanang cannot dissociate itself from whatever the departments of justice and foreign affairs do against Chinese Ambassador Wang Chungqui, whom Justice Secretary Hernando Perez wants declared persona non grata and expelled.

The tiff with the ambassador started when Perez said that 122 Chinese fishermen caught poaching in Philippine waters should at least plead guilty and pay hefty fines if they do not want to go through a trial.

When their ambassador followed up their case with Perez in a somewhat arrogant manner, raising his voice and banging the desk, the Batangueno secretary would not let it pass. He now wants the hot-headed envoy kicked out.

We fully agree with Perez’s insisting on upholding the majesty of Philippine law by taking punitive action against poachers. This is not the first time that Chinese and other intruders have violated our waters. It is high time we served notice that we are not a doormat to the world.

But publicly tangling in media with the accredited ambassador of a neighboring country is something else. When the Chinese envoy lost his temper, Perez could have smiled and coolly shown him the door — and taught him a lesson in diplomacy.

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EXTRATERRITORIALITY: By international convention, diplomats (we mean real diplomats, not senators flashing dubious diplomatic passports) moving around in the civilized world are to be accorded immunity and the usual courtesies.

As signatory to such convention, we subscribe to the myth that the diplomat’s person is an extension of his country’s sovereign territory. In fact, such extraterritoriality extends in some measure to the ambassador’s household (who can be targeted to indirectly harass the diplomat).

If, for instance, an inebriated diplomat provokes a brawl in a hotel lobby and seriously injures another customer, he may not be arrested by responding policemen, hauled to the precinct and processed for the filing of charges. He is immune from such municipal processes.

The most that local authorities can do to exact “justice” is to have the ambassador declared persona non grata, after which his home government will recall him. There is a well-defined procedure for that extreme and rarely used sanction, and having a Cabinet member denounce him in media or rousing up a congressional chorus to hoot down the offensive envoy is not part of it.

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JUST DO IT!: If Secretary Perez really wants the Chinese ambassador declared persona non grata, he should just do it, instead of talking about his intentions in media. We deplore the provocation by the ambassador, but Perez could have scored by showing him how to act as a diplomat.

Also, Malacanang should not be caught saying in effect that it has nothing to do with the way the justice secretary has been handling the problem or with what the foreign office would do. That cannot be.

The secretary of an Executive department is an alter ego of the President. What the secretary does, he does so in the name of the President whether the latter knows about it or not.

It cannot be that the President does not know — or worse, does not care — what her Cabinet secretary does, especially when it involves, as in this case, an accredited ambassador of a foreign power.

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ACTING FOR THE PRESIDENT: The case of the Chinese poachers is an opportunity for this small nation to show all and sundry that it still has a mind of its own and has the guts to assert itself when circumstances call for it.

Some of our neighbors, including arrogant Malaysians who have just emerged from the swamplands, have been kicking us around lately. If only to save face, we sometimes have to demonstrate that we can also kick back.

But let’s do it by the book.

This is not politics. It is diplomacy and protocol. It does not look right for the Chief Executive to allow a Cabinet secretary to hit a diplomat accredited to Manila and hint that the secretary is acting on his own.

We’re not saying that Malacanang is directing Perez in his quarrel with the diplomat. But in the final analysis, the President will have to take responsibility for whatever Perez and Foreign Secretary Blas F. Ople do or do not do. The President cannot feign a hands-off attitude.

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DIVERSIONARY TACTICS: We should not be distracted by the attempt of a former senator to sidetrack the discussion over the deleterious effects of coal-fired power plants by saying that the closure of polluting plants will benefit the Lopez family running the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco).

His complicated argument attempting to show that closing a coal plant in Calaca, Batangas, will enable the Lopezes to make more money is hard to follow. To accept his theory requires a quantum leap of logic.

What the long-suffering victims of dirty coal plants know is that closing the source of the deadly pollution will benefit the public, especially the communities hosting the plants. There cannot be anything more real to them than their kith and kin dying because of the neurotoxins and carcinogens spewed by the coal plants.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that Calaca’s closure may benefit the Lopezes, does it follow that we should keep the coal plants operating and spreading pollution just to deny the Lopez their supposed profits?

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DAMNING RESEARCH INFO: After claiming that closure of the coal plant in Calaca would benefit the Lopezes, the pro-coal advocate went on to conclude that, therefore, the Lopezes must be orchestrating and financing the campaign against dirty coal plants!

Sometimes such innuendo, although absurd, can prompt some media sectors and environmentalists to relent in pursuing their point. But the public health stakes are too high for concerned citizens to drop just to avoid getting tainted by the mud-slinging.

The campaign to shut down inefficient and pollutive coal plants will succeed or fail on the basis mainly of whether or not the data about people being poisoned by the emissions from burned coal — tagged as Environment Enemy No. 1 — are correct. Irrelevant claims, such as the Lopezes allegedly standing to reap profits — should not cloud the real issues.

Samples from the coal plants have been taken and analyzed by reputable laboratories. The researchers cannot all be wrong when they report that mercury and other harmful wastes come out of the smoke stacks of coal plants, spreading a noxious ash several kilometers around the source.

It is common knowledge, and this is backed by scientific findings, that deadly emissions from coal-fired plants cause cancer and the whole line of lung ailments, and create a form of “black rain” that harms foliage and poisons the soil.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 24, 2002)

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