Duterte at UN meet: South China Sea ruling is 'beyond compromise'
Franco Luna (Philstar.com) - September 23, 2020 - 1:55am

MANILA, Philippines — The 2016 arbitral award invalidating Beijing's nine-dash line claim over a large part of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, is now part of international law and is beyond compromise, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday. 

Speaking at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly for the first time late Tuesday night, the chief executive brought up the ruling despite the Palace saying the dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea can be "set aside" as among "the matters that we cannot resolve perhaps in our lifetime."

RELATED: Palace: Philippines can 'set aside' South China Sea issues for infra, trade

"The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of governments to dilute or demean," the president said in his pre-recorded message.

He added that the Philippines "firmly reject attempts to undermine it." 

"We welcome 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."

He was referring to the favorable arbitral ruling that the Philippines won in The Hague in 2016 based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which held that China's sweeping nine-dash line claim has no legal basis.

READ: 'China has the arms. We do not have it,' Duterte says on West Philippine Sea

He was referring to the favorable arbitral ruling that the Philippines won in The Hague in 2016 based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, marking legal entitlements for Manila over the West Philippine Sea.

The president also urged member states to hold fast to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and asked the Philippine Senate to ratify the measure. 

"The global health crisis has further complicated the global security environment. No aspiration or ambition justify the use of weapons that destroy indiscriminately. These weapons of death puts at all at mortal risk if they fall in the hands of terrorists without a shred of humanity in their soul," he said. 

Calling attention to the issue of climate change, the president also said: "This is a global challenge that has worsened inequalities and vulnerabilities. Developing countries like the Philippines suffered the most, and we cannot afford to suffer more...we're talking about mankind and Earth, our one and only home."

Previous comments on the UN

Over his presidential term, Duterte has not been shy about expressing his distaste for the intergovernmental organization, calling its officials "inutile idiots" in separate instances, and even once saying he would "burn it down."

At Tuesday night's session, though, the president said that "the UN remains humanity's [most] essential organization." 

The UNGA is the main deliberative body of the United Nations, where all 193 member states are represented. On Monday, Chief of Presidential Protocol for Foreign Affairs Robert Borje disclosed that the president would touch on his coronavirus response, the rule of law, and human rights, among others, during his talk. 

Due to pandemic protocols, speakers submitted pre-recorded addresses that would be played to the General Assembly.

The 75th session of the UNGA, themed, "The Future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action," saw world leaders sending in pre-recorded videos of their speeches which were broadcast as live. 

In opening the session, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned world leaders about what he said was a looming Cold War between the United States and China. "We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities," he said.

READ: Citing 'dead ends' for accountability in Philippines, groups urge probe by UN rights body

'War on drugs' 

Duterte's administration, elected on a flagship campaign promise of a ruthless anti-narcotics campaign, has over the years been criticized for its resulting "war on drugs" that has killed thousands of alleged drug personalities, more than 5,000 of which the government's own data has acknowledged.

Local and international rights monitors have said that the death toll could be as high as 30,000, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch saying that the nightly killings linked to the drug war even increased over the coronavirus pandemic in the Philippines. 

Administration officials have continued to deflect criticisms over the campaign, often pointing instead to its supposed successes or discrediting its critics, a tactic employed by Duterte during his talk, referring to critics as "interest groups" who "weaponized" human rights as anti-government propaganda.

"A number of groups weaponized human rights, some well meaning, some ill intentioned. Detractors pass themselves off as human rights advocates, hide their misdeeds under the blanket of human rights. Even schools are not spared from their malevolence and anti government propaganda. They hide under human rights but the blood oozes through," he said.  

"The Philippines will continue to protect human rights from scourge of illegal drugs, criminality, terrorism."

Duterte went as far as defending the controversial anti-terror law, claiming its enactment was pursuant to UN Security Council resolution.

As of this writing, the law has seen 35 legal challenges filed before the Supreme Court. 

"Terrorism looms large. PH will do everything and partner with anyone who would sincerely desire to protect the innocent from terrorism in all its manifestation...[the] Marawi siege taught us that an effective legal framework is crucial," he said, adding that the country was open to any refugees seeking asylum. 

On Monday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the Philippine government intended to belie the accusations from rights groups, saying he did not "agree" with the "fake news from leftists" and that they would first have to be verified before they held any weight on the international stage. 

READ: Fact check: Reported increase in 'drug war' deaths amid pandemic is backed by gov't data

The international rights monitor's analysis was based on official government data and, according to its methodology, "primarily on in-person interviews that Human Rights Watch carried out."

Press freedom 

The president was also expected to touch on the issue of press freedom after European lawmakers condemned its state in the country, though he did not mention it in his address.

In a resolution adopted earlier this weekend, the European Parliament condemned what it said was “rapid” deterioration of human rights and press freedom in the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte and calling on the government to address certain issues, which included the cyber-libel case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and the rejected franchise bid of ABS-CBN Corp. 

READ: EU Parliament condemns ‘rapidly deteriorating’ state of human rights, press freedom in Philippines

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, a close ally and former running mate of Duterte, slammed this move in a lengthy Facebook post, calling it a "misguided and misinformed infringement on Philippine sovereignty."

This, while the Palace continues to assert that Duterte's administration continues to support press freedom and freedom of speech, which it claims is "alive and well" in the Philippines despite what media groups have said are the "shrinking spaces for fundamental freedoms" in the country. 

READ: Cayetano: European Parliament reso on ABS-CBN franchise, Ressa cases is interference

Coronavirus response 

The Philippines remains the country with the most number of COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia and under the world's longest quarantine, having gone 189 days since the first imposition of enhanced community quarantine.

Duterte continues to highlight in his public addresses that he believes that a vaccine is the only solution to the pandemic, a sentiment he again pressed before world leaders on Tuesday. 

"We are at a crossroads. How we address COVID-19 defines our future, and we will need to ask hard and fundamental questions about the vision and mission of the United Nations...When the world finds that vaccine, access to it must not be denied. It should be made available to all, rich and poor. It must be considered a global public good, let us be clear on this," he said. 

"We need a [World Health Organization] that is quick to coordinate and quicker to respond. The Philippines will do its part in the pooling of government resources. Our health workers are among the best," he added. 

In the past, the Palace has reminded Filipinos not to have the "wrong view" that the coronavirus situation is bad in the Philippines, pointing out that other nations around the world are going through it, too, and things could be worse. 

As of the health department's latest update earlier Tuesday, there have been 291,789 cases of the coronavirus recorded since the virus first emerged in Wuhan, Chuna in December.

The new pathogen's death toll in the country has also since breached the 5,000-mark. 

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