By Tony Lopez

The speech was just 2,055 words short. It was less than 23 minutes long, but short for someone who usually spends hours rambling senselessly on many topics, but it is perhaps the most important declaration of Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Philippine foreign policy and world affairs.

On Tuesday, Sept, 22, 2020, Duterte addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, via zoom, direct from the presidential palace.  

The UN’s diamond anniversary was remarkable not for the number of people who were present at the sprawling UN headquarters in New York (very few, and they were low-level), but for the number of world leaders who were absent—nearly all of them, of countries, big and small.  They have one common enemy: the coronavirus. 

The leaders were afraid to get sick, and of course, afraid to die.  Dying because of COVID would have been senseless.  You cannot invoke something lofty, for the soul, for the nation, for the world.  You cannot even invoke causes like peace, war, international understanding, global village and similar or unrelated nonsense.

Amid such unpleasant scenario Duterte gave one of the most substantial speeches of his four-year presidency.  In language plain and simple yet so eloquent, the leader of 110 million Filipinos whom most of the world deride as a strongman, said in effect:

1.  Disputes must be resolved peacefully. 

“We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes,” the President said.

2.  The so-called 9-dash line has no basis whatsoever under international law insofar as it purports to define the limits of China’s claim to “historic rights”.

“The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award.  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,” Duterte said.

“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. This – as it should – is the majesty of the law.”

The July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague nullified China’s claim on nearly all of the South China Sea. The award recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to parts of the vast South China region under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In welcoming the states that have come in support of the award, in effect, Duterte also thanked United Kingdom, France and Germany which have rejected China’s expansionary claims in the South China Sea made thru a recent joint note verbale submitted to the UN.

By bringing the Arbitral Award to the attention of the UN, Duterte also internationalized the West Philippine Sea dispute, something China hates because it wants bilateral, not multilateral, approach.  In bilateral, Beijing can exert pressure on individual countries, like the members of the 11-member ASEAN, with a carrot and stick approach, using promises of official assistance, investments, loans, and tourism visitors.

3.  The Philippines is helpless with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duterte said “the Philippines values the role that the United Nations plays in its fight against the pandemic.

As a middle-income country whose economic advances have been derailed by the pandemic, we welcome the launch of the UN COVID Response and Recovery Fund.

Ensuring universal access to anti COVID-19 technologies and products is pivotal in the global pandemic recovery.”

“When the world finds (the) 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.”

4.  The Philippines hates “word wars” that could escalate into world wars or worse, nuclear wars.

“Escalating tensions benefit no one. New flashpoints heighten fears and tend to tear peoples apart.  When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled flat. Given the size and military might of the contenders, we can only imagine and be aghast at the terrible toll on human life and property that shall be inflicted if the ‘word war’ deteriorates into a real war of nuclear weapons and missiles,” Duterte said.

“I therefore call on the stakeholders in the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa: if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much. I heard it once said, and I say it to myself in complete agreement,” he pleaded.

“There is no excuse for deaths that a nuclear war could cause nor the reckless use of chemical and biological weapons that can cause mass destruction.”

5.  The Philippines is committed to reducing carbon emissions.

The President said “The same urgency needed to fight COVID-19 is needed to address the climate crisis. This is a global challenge that has worsened existing inequalities and vulnerabilities from within and between nations.  Climate change has worsened the ravages of the pandemic. Peoples in developing countries like the Philippines suffer the most. We cannot afford to suffer more.  The Philippines joined the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. We call on all parties, especially those who have not made good their commitment to fight climate change, to honor the same.”

The US is the leading country that pulled out of the Paris Agreement. It is also the world’s largest polluter.

6.  The Philippines will continue to protect the human rights of its people, especially from the scourge of illegal drugs, criminality, and terrorism.  It wants the UN to take action.

“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 enjoy 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.”

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

“The United Nations is the key…But (actions) must be done in full respect of the principles of objectivity, non-interference, non-selectivity and genuine dialogue. These are the fundamental bases for productive international cooperation on human rights.”

7.  The Philippines is disappointed with the UN.

“To make significant changes, we need to be bold. We need the same collective courage that finally made the United Nations a reality 75 years ago.”

“We need to act on long-standing recommendations to improve the Security Council’s composition and working methods; to strengthen the role of the General Assembly; and to streamline the processes and the operations of the UN.

“Indeed, to be ready for the new global normal, it cannot be business as usual for the UN.”