POSTSCRIPT / September 27, 2020 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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‘No solution to SCS row in our lifetime’

PRESIDENT Duterte was still reaping hometown praises for telling the world Tuesday that the Philippines stood by the 2016 arbitration award affirming its sovereign rights within its maritime areas when his spokesman rose to say that there was no policy change at all.

The President said in his address beamed electronically from Manila to the 75th United Nations General Assembly in New York that the Philippines “firmly rejects attempts to undermine” the award handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

Duterte declared that the award rejecting China’s claim over much of the South China Sea, including parts of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”

“We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition,” he said. “This, as it should, is the majesty of the law.”

The President’s assertion, made toward the end of his 23-minute address, was a departure from his usual line that he would not invoke the arbitral ruling in his talks with China President Xi Jinping, who he said had hinted at warlike consequences if he did.

But he also said once that the time will come when he would raise the ruling. The time seemed to have come Tuesday at the UN despite advice that it was useless to elevate the matter to the general assembly where China reportedly held sway.

His spokesman Harry Roque cut the short-lived cheering of the woke Manila crowd that included former Supreme Court associate justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio-Morales, and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario – who pressed Malacañang for follow-up action.

In an online press briefing, Roque said the President merely reiterated what has been “the Philippine policy on China na hindi natin pwedeng balewalain ang panalo natin sa (that we cannot neglect our win at the) Hague.”

He said: “We will move on matters that we could move forward on, including trade and investments, and we will for the time being set this (the PCA ruling) aside because I don’t think the resolution of the territorial dispute is forthcoming in our lifetime.”

That sounded like the arbitral award, which has never been recognized by China that at the outset questioned even the jurisdiction of the PCA, was given the Mona Lisa treatment – “they just lie there, and they die there”.

Roque said Duterte’s remark that the Philippines rejects attempts to undermine the country’s arbitration victory only means that there is nothing China can do to overturn the PCA ruling. But he did not say either what can or must be done to enforce it.

He explained that whatever military facilities China had installed on the artificial islands it has built in Philippine waters will remain part of the country’s exclusive economic zone and their foreign occupation will never ripen into a valid legal title.

Also crammed into Duterte’s 2,000-word address were the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights, climate change, and other problems besetting most of the 193 sovereign UN member-states.

He opened his address by focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic, a pestilence that does not respect ideologies nor geographical boundaries. The scourge has infected more than 32.8 million and killed more than 995,000 worldwide. Of those infected, around 300,000 are in the Philippines.

He called attention to problems that the pandemic poses to countries that may not be able to afford a vaccine or compete for adequate supply, especially now that rich countries have made advance payment for their orders.

On Covid-19, he said: “The invisible enemy has brought about an unfamiliar global landscape and unleashed a crisis without precedent. It is the biggest test the world and the UN faced since World War II. We are at a crossroads. How we address Covid-19 will define our future.”

He called for a global health agenda with sufficient resources and policy space for the World Health Organization that should be “quick to coordinate and quicker to respond.” He promised that the Philippines will do its part.

Duterte is still waiting for the Covid-19 vaccine that Xi Jinping had promised to share with Filipinos before Christmas. It was not clear which of several Chinese pharma firms working on their respective vaccines would be the source.

He is also waiting for the Sputnik V vaccine promised by Russia President Vladimir Putin for which Duterte volunteered to take the local first shot. After his offer made headlines worldwide, Roque clarified that the vaccine must pass first its mass testing on humans and be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

On human rights, a key issue raised by his critics abroad, Duterte said: “The Philippines will continue to protect the human rights of its people, especially from the scourge of illegal drugs, criminality, and terrorism.

“A number of interest groups have weaponized human rights; some well-meaning, others ill-intentioned. They attempt to discredit the functioning institutions and mechanisms of a democratic country and a popularly elected government which in its last two years still enjoys the same widespread approval and support.

“These detractors pass themselves off as human rights advocates while preying on the most vulnerable humans; even using children as soldiers or human shields in encounters. Even schools are not spared from their malevolence and anti-government propaganda.”

Those remarks drew barbed rejoinders from human rights groups and other sectors who have been denouncing extrajudicial killings related to the administration’s bloody campaign against illegal drug trafficking and abuse.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 27, 2020)

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