HOW many times has President Duterte derided the United Nations, particularly its agencies and advocacies on human rights, climate change, etc.? We have lost count already.
But in his first address before the United Nations General Assembly, which was recorded at the Malacañang Park and beamed at the assembly in New York, the President sounded like the strong leader of an emerging Third World country that he truly is. As in his handling of the Philippines-United States relations, Duterte showed the leaders of the international community that he is enigmatic and pliable, and his wind can blow one way, then another.
Before the UN body, Duterte affirmed last Wednesday the Philippines’ arbitral victory against China over the South China Sea issue. He said, “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.”
‘While Duterte said he will not countenance undermining the Philippine maritime claim, he himself has undermined it…’
While the nation hinges it claim on Kalayaan island and some parts of the Spratlys as part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands, it cannot fully push this claim because of headwinds blowing from its giant neighbor, China. And then there is also the concern about similar conflicting claims of friendly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations such as Vietnam and Malaysia. China, meanwhile, had consistently refused to acknowledge the arbitral ruling that invalidated its claim in the entire South China Sea, and with good reason: it did not participate in the “arbitration,” and there can never be an arbitration with just one party arbitrating itself.
Recently, France, Germany and the United Kingdom rejected China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea through a joint note verbale filed at the UN, and President Duterte saw the golden opportunity to thank these nations — European countries which had been at the receiving end of his curses and vitriol before.
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 UN address of the Chief Executive has dual implications both here and abroad. Locally, incorrigible anti-Duterte protesters will now have to swallow their vomit. The so-called Makabayan bloc, communist Left, and legal fronts of the Communist Party cannot now shout that Duterte is a stooge of China. He has now officially taken their side in the South China Sea issue, and before the international community at that.
Meantime, while Beijing has been put on notice that Duterte has not forgotten the Philippine claim in their southern sea, its officials can read between the lines and know that a thunderous speech is just that — strong words.
While Duterte said he will not countenance undermining the Philippine maritime claim, he himself has undermined it when he said for practical purposes, he will have to set aside that empty ruling from a discredited panel in the Netherlands.