President Rodrigo Duterte contradicted his top diplomat when he affirmed the Philippines’ historic arbitral victory against China on the South China Sea dispute during his debut appearance at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA) on Sept. 22.
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The president called on the assembly to “remain mindful of our obligations and commitment” to settle international disputes by peaceful means, as stated in the UN Charter and “amplified” by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes.
In July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled in favor of the Philippines, declaring certain features of the South China Sea to be within the country’s exclusive economic zone, as defined by the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, and invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim, among others.
But Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque downplayed Duterte’s much-praised speech two days later. He said the president’s statement about the South China Sea issue was “not strong” since it was supposedly merely a reiteration of the government’s existing policy.
Roque said there is “no way” to enforce the ruling aside from acknowledgment from the involved parties (China continues to shun the ruling); through the use of economic or military measures, as agreed upon by the members of the UN Security Council; or by way of a “Uniting for Peace” resolution from the UN GA.
“What we’re saying is, let’s not open this discussion because it is already part of international law; and second, if we course [the ruling] through a vote by the [UN GA]…we can lose because the countries will vote for political and economic reasons,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino in his Sept. 24 press briefing.
In a joint statement released in late August, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, and retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio countered Locsin’s stance:
“Bringing the Arbitral Ruling to the UNGA is not re-litigating the case. It is enforcing what we already won. As international law does not have a world policeman, it is up to us to enforce the Arbitral Ruling by rallying other countries to our lawful position. If we do not help ourselves, how can we expect other countries to help us?”
Sources: Philstar.com, Please bring the Arbitral Ruling to the UN General Assembly, Aug. 31, 2020; Manila Standard, Please bring the arbitral ruling to the UN General Assembly, Aug. 31, 2020; Manila Bulletin, Del Rosario, Carpio, Morales: Raise Arbitral ruling at UNGA 2020, Aug. 30, 2020
Del Rosario and Carpio, in separate statements, both welcomed Duterte’s UN pronouncement; Carpio “personally commend[ed]” the president’s “strong stand,” while del Rosario said the Philippine government must now “work earnestly to get the support of more countries so that the arbitral award will be raised more empathetically” in the UNGA in 2021.
Duterte appeared to have had a change of heart on the Philippines’ victory over China in the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute in his first UN speech.
During his penultimate State of the Nation Address on July 27, he said he “could not do anything” about the South China Sea issue because China was supposedly “in possession of the property.” (See #SONA2020 VERA Files’ live fact check; VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Three things Duterte got wrong in the PH-China maritime standoff)
In September 2019, Duterte said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to “ignore” the Arbitral Award to pursue oil and gas development in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte shifts from ‘invoking’ to ‘ignoring’ the PCA ruling; SONA 2019 Promise Tracker: Foreign Relations)
Permanent Court of Arbitration, PRESS RELEASE: THE SOUTH CHINA SEA ARBITRATION, July 12, 2016
Presidential Communications Operations Office, Statement of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte during the General Debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2020
CNN Philippines, The Source: Teddy Boy Locsin (08.28.29), Aug. 28, 2020
Department of Foreign Affairs, Transcript of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s Aug. 28 interview at CNN Philippines’ The Source
Presidential Communications Operations Office, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. represents President Duterte at the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit and EU-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting in Brussels, Belgium on October 18, 2018, Oct. 19, 2018
United Nations, Pacific Settlement of Disputes (Chapter VI of UN Charter), Accessed Sept. 25, 2020
United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes, Nov. 15, 1982
United Nations, UNCLOS, Dec. 10, 1982
Permanent Court of Arbitration, South China Sea Arbitration Award, July 12, 2016
Philstar.com, Please bring the Arbitral Ruling to the UN General Assembly, Aug. 31, 2020
Manila Standard, Please bring the arbitral ruling to the UN General Assembly, Aug. 31, 2020
Manila Bulletin, Del Rosario, Carpio, Morales: Raise Arbitral ruling at UNGA 2020, Aug. 30, 2020
Institute for Maritime and Ocean Affairs, Statement of Justice Antonio T Carpio (Ret.) on the Speech of President Rodrigo Duterte before the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2020
OneNews, Inutile No More? Duterte Finally Raises Arbitral Ruling On South China Sea Before UN, Pleasantly Surprises Critics, Sept. 24, 2020
GMA News Online, ‘Put in reality’ invocation of arbitral win vs. China, Del Rosario urges Duterte, Sept. 23, 2020
Inquirer.net, Gov’t must turn into reality Duterte’s assertion of arbitral award, Sept. 24, 2020
Presidential Communications Operations Office, Press Briefing of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Sept. 24, 2020
ABS-CBN News, China rejects Hague ruling anew, cites ‘agreement’ with Duterte to ‘close the old chapter’, Sept. 25, 2020
Daily Tribune, China rejects anew PH claim over South China Sea, Sept. 25, 2020
Manila Standard, China denies SCS ruling anew, Sept. 27, 2020
United Nations, Charter: CHAPTER VII: ACTION WITH RESPECT TO THREATS TO THE PEACE, BREACHES OF THE PEACE, AND ACTS OF AGGRESSION, n.d.
United Nations, Uniting for Peace
Presidential Communications Operations Office, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address, July 27, 2020, watch from 1:35:04
RTVMalacanang, Oath-Taking Ceremony of the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC), Presidential Photojournalists Association (PPA), and Malacañang Cameramen Association (MCA), Sept. 10, 2019
(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)