Duterte bats for equal access to vaccine vs COVID-19 at UNGA speech

President Rodrigo Duterte reminded global leaders in his first-ever appearance at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that access for both poor and rich countries to a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine must be considered a “matter of public policy” and crucial in the global recovery from the pandemic.

“When the world finds that vaccine, access to it must not be denied nor withheld. It should be made available to all, rich and poor nations alike, as a matter of policy,” Duterte said in his pre-recorded 22-minute speech played during the fourth plenary session of the 75th UNGA general debates at midnight (Manila time) on Sept. 22.

Duterte also addressed other pressing issues such as the human rights situation in the Philippines, the dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea, geopolitical tensions, terrorism, and climate crisis, among others.

Here are some of the highlights:

    • Four years after the July 2016 historic victory against China over its exclusive rights in certain parts of the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Duterte spoke strongly for it. “The Award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” he declared.
    • He slammed “interest groups” for allegedly weaponizing human rights to discredit the government. He said an “open dialogue” and constructive engagement with the United Nations is the “key” to resolve issues thrown at his administration.
Anti-COVID vaccine

The president raised to the assembly the “collective voice” of member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to consider access to COVID-19 vaccines as a matter of “global public good.”

In a number of public addresses, Duterte, who said in February that COVID-19 will just “die a natural death”, asserted that a vaccine is the only cure to COVID-19. He claimed that the vaccine against the virus, which has infected over 291,000 in the country, may come out by December. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte repeats false claim that vaccines are made from human body)

On Sept. 14, Duterte said vaccines to be developed by Russia and China will be given preference after he questioned “western” pharmaceutical companies for asking reservation fees for their jabs. He said, “bakit ako magbili ng ganung style…because the Procurement Law of the Philippines…does not allow you to buy something which is non-existence or to be produced as yet.”

In a Sept. 17 report, international non-profit group Oxfam International said over 51 percent of the future supply of the five leading COVID-19 vaccines being developed by AstraZeneca, Russia’s Gamaleya Institute/Sputnik V, Moderna, Pfizer and Sinovac have been bought or reserved by wealthy countries. Oxfam said these countries, such as China, the United Kingdom and the United States, composed only 13 percent of the global population.

Along with other organizations, the World Health Organization, meanwhile, has put up a mechanism called the COVAX Facility to ensure equal access of countries to COVID-19 vaccines.

West Philippine Sea

The president welcomed the “increasing” number of states that supported the international tribunal’s award and “what it stands for — the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This — as it should — is the majesty of the law.”

Retired justice Antonio Carpio, who was among those who urged Duterte to assert the PCA ruling, commended Duterte’s “strong stand” in asserting the country’s arbitral award before the assembly and for welcoming countries that support it.

“I fervently hope that this is the policy that the Duterte administration will implement across all levels – in the protection of our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippines Sea, in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct, and in gathering the support of the international community for the enforcement of the arbitral award,” Carpio said in a statement.

In July 2016, the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines, declaring certain features of WPS within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and invalidated China’s territorial claim based on its nine-dash line that covers almost 80 percent of the entire sea. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte shifts from ‘invoking’ to ‘ignoring’ the PCA ruling)

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping assured fellow UN member-states that “we will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot war with any country.”

China has a number of territorial disputes with neighbouring countries such as India, Philippines and Vietnam.

It has also repeatedly rejected the PCA ruling for the Philippines and continued to reclaim islands in disputed areas of WPS for military and research purposes.

Human rights

In the course of defending his government’s war on drugs, Duterte spoke strongly against his critics, saying they have been pretending to be advocates of human rights and spreading “malevolence and anti-government propaganda” even in schools.

“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,” Duterte told his audience from across the globe.

“They hide their misdeeds under the blanket of human rights but the blood oozes through,” he continued.

Duterte has publicly opposed any call for investigation of the UN on alleged human rights violations under his war on drugs. He had even threatened to “slap” UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard if she would conduct an investigation on alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

In June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report detailing the “widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings” in the country since 2015. The human rights office recommended the creation of an independent body to investigate the killings and allow coordination between the Philippiine government and its staff, among others. (See UN body seeks impartial probe of killings, scrapping of ‘Oplan Tokhang’)

Watch or read Duterte’s speech before the 75th UNGA.

List of speakers at the UNGA 75th General Debate: “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.”

    1. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President, Federative Republic of Brazil
    2. Donald Trump, President, United States of America
    3. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President, Republic of Turkey
    4. Xi Jinping, President, People’s Republic of China
    5. Sebastián Piñera Echenique, President, Republic of Chile
    6. Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, President, Republic of South Africa
    7. Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez, President, Republic of Cuba
    8. Vladimir Putin, President, Russian Federation
    9. King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
    10. Moon Jae-in, President, Republic of Korea
    11. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Emir, State of Qatar
    12. Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President, Republic of the Philippines
    13. Hassan Rouhani, President, Islamic Republic of Iran
    14. Emmanuel Macron, President, French Republic
    15. Iván Duque Márquez, President, Republic of Colombia
    16. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, President, Turkmenistan
    17. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President, Arab Republic of Egypt
    18. Emomali Rahmon, President, Republic of Tajikistan
    19. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President, United Mexican States
    20. Luis Lacalle Pou, President, Eastern Republic of Uruguay
    21. Danny Faure, President, Republic of Seychelles
    22. Paul Kagame, President, Republic of Rwanda
    23. João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, President, Republic of Angola
    24. Alberto Fernández, President, Argentine Republic
    25. Egils Levits, President, Republic of Latvia
    26. Gitanas Nausėda, President, Republic of Lithuania
    27. Muhammadu Buhari, President, Federal Republic of Nigeria
    28. Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President, Republic of Costa Rica
    29. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
    30. Joko Widodo, President, Republic of Indonesia
    31. Martín Vizcarra Cornejo, President, Republic of Peru
    32. Félix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi, President, Democratic Republic of the Congo