VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Once more, Duterte changes tune on importance of PCA award

Virtually speaking before world leaders, President Rodrigo Duterte again sang a different tune on Wednesday, positively this time, when he declared that no country can “diminish” the importance of the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in favor of the Philippines against China.

STATEMENT

In a pre-recorded speech at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Sept. 22 (Philippine time), Duterte affirmed the country’s commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other stakeholders in ensuring “peace, security and prosperity” in the South China Sea. He said:

“The 1982 UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral award of the South China Sea provide a clear path towards a just, fair and win-win solution for all. The award must be seen for what it is -- a benefit across the world to all who subscribe to the majesty of the law. No amount of willful disregard by any country, however big and powerful, can diminish the arbitral award’s importance.”

Source: RTVMalacanang, Message for the 76th United Nations General Assembly (Speech) 9/22/2021, Sept. 22, 2021, watch from 12:41 to 13:18 (transcript)

Duterte also called on all countries to commit to the “rule of law” to maintain global order.

FACT

Duterte’s UNGA speech is yet another turnaround on how he invokes the PCA decision favoring the Philippines which he had downplayed on other occasions when he spoke extemporaneously.

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In an ad lib during his sixth and last State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July, Duterte recalled his speech at the UNGA last year in which he “firmly reject[ed]” attempts to “undermine” the arbitral award. He then backtracked, recognizing China's refusal to accept the decision:

Ano pa ang gusto ninyo (What more do you want)? What will I do with a document that [does] not bind China because they were never a part of that arbitration? There was really no arbitration at all because it was only the Philippine side [that] was heard.”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, State of the Nation Address of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Philippines to the Congress of the Philippines, July 26, 2021, watch from 2:07:30 to 2:08:02 (Archived Transcript)

(See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte is wrong; South China Sea arbitral award binds China, too - Vera Files)

Prior to his SONA, Duterte contradicted his September 2020 UNGA speech when he claimed in a May 5, 2021 public address that the arbitral decision is "just a piece of paper" he would throw into the wastebasket.

Several times since 2016, Duterte has changed his tune on the PCA ruling. In September 2019, he went from “invoking” to “ignoring” the arbitral win in order to pursue more “economic” agreements with China. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte shifts from ‘invoking’ to ‘ignoring’ the PCA ruling)

Duterte falsely claimed on May 3, 2021, that he “never mentioned” the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China during his campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. Seven days later, he called his infamous campaign promise to ride a jet ski and hoist the Philippine flag on the Spratly Island Group as just “bravado” or a “pure campaign joke.”

(See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte claims he ‘never mentioned’ PH-China maritime row in 2016 campaign. He did.)

In July 2016, barely 12 days after Duterte assumed the presidency, the PCA held in its “final and binding” award that China’s nine-dash line has “no legal basis” to claim ownership of the entire South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is part.

The Netherlands-based arbitral tribunal also declared, among other findings, that certain maritime features in the South China Sea — including Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which are both part of the Spratly Island Group — are within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone.

Contrary to claims that the arbitral award is not valid, the PCA affirmed that China is bound to comply with its decisions as a signatory since June 1996 to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“[T]he non-participation of China does not bar this Tribunal from proceeding with the arbitration. China is still a party to the arbitration, and pursuant to the terms of Article 296(1) of the Convention and Article 11 of Annex VII, it shall be bound by any award the Tribunal issues.”

Source: Permanent Court of Arbitration, Award on Jurisdiction and Admissibility (p. 11), Oct. 29, 2016

Despite China’s deliberate non-participation in the three-year arbitral proceedings, the tribunal assured that it did not “simply accept” the evidence and claims of the Philippines. It also took note of the position paper and public statements, among other documents, from the Chinese foreign ministry and Beijing’s ambassador to the Netherlands regarding the arbitration case. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: PH didn't 'handpick' entire panel in South China Sea arbitration case - Vera Files)


Sources

RTVMalacanang, Message for the 76th United Nations General Assembly (Speech) 9/22/2021, Sept. 22, 2021 (transcript)

Presidential Communications Operations Office, State of the Nation Address of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Philippines to the Congress of the Philippines, July 26, 2021 (Archived Transcript, Video)

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 3, 2021

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 5, 2021

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 10, 2021

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

RTVMalacanang, Oath-Taking Ceremony of the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC), Presidential Photojournalists Association (PPA), and Malacañang Cameramen Association (MCA), Sept. 10, 2019

RTVMalacanang, Press Briefing, Aug. 6, 2019

United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Accessed July 29, 2021

United Nations, Status of the UNCLOS, Accessed on Sept. 23, 2021

Permanent Court of Arbitration, Award on the South China Sea Arbitration, July 12, 2016


(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.)

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