President Rodrigo Duterte participated at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly for the first time and his speech drew mixed reactions online.
In his televised address last Tuesday, September 22, Duterte upheld the Philippines’ legal victory against the China in 2016 before state leaders.
“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,” he said.
The gesture was surprising, with Duterte since the start of his presidency having touting friendly relations with the Asian power at the cost of a shelved arbitration award favoring the Philippines as a policy leverage.
Duterte also expressed gratitude to other countries who supported and respected the 2016 UNCLOS award.
“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,” he said.
The arbitral ruling that the Philippines won in The Hague in 2016 invalidated China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim over the entire South China Sea, parts of which belong to the Philippines.
Throughout his presidency, Duterte has often expressed his reluctance to reinforce the country’s sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea despite several incidents of China’s aggression to Filipino fishermen within these waters.
Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio praised the chief executive for invoking the country’s rights before the UNGA.
In a tweet on September 23, Lacson stated that doubts on Duterte’s position on the territorial row should be erased.
“Alipin’ no more! Hearing the President invoke the Award before the UN General Assembly while firmly rejecting any attempt to undermine it should now erase doubts on where he stands regarding the WPS issue,” Lacson said.
Alipin’ no more!
Hearing the President invoke the Award before the UN General Assembly while firmly rejecting any attempt to undermine it should now erase doubts on where he stands regarding the WPS issue.
— PING LACSON (@iampinglacson) September 23, 2020
Carpio, meanwhile, said that it is “heartening” for him to hear Duterte welcoming other states’ support to the ruling.
He also hoped the Duterte administration would implement this policy “across all levels–in the protection of our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippines Sea, in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct, and in gathering the support of the international community for the enforcement of the arbitral award.”
What some critics have to say
Former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of Duterte’s most vocal critics, advised that the public should not fall for Duterte’s positive words, citing his infamous jet ski promise during his presidential campaign.
“To believe Duterte now on his UN statement re WPS, is like believing his jet ski campaign promise all over again. Utang na loob, wag kayo patanga-tanga!” Trillanes said.
To believe duterte now on his UN statement re WPS, is like believing his jetski campaign promise all over again. Utang na loob, wag kayo patanga-tanga!
— Sonny Trillanes IV (@TrillanesSonny) September 23, 2020
Human rights researcher Carlos Conde also noted that Duterte only expressed what the international organization was expected of him.
“If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that what Duterte says in public depends on who’s in front of him,” Conde said.
“This, he figured, was what the UN wanted to hear so he said it. Except his brutal ‘drug war,’ Duterte’s actions rarely matches his rhetoric,” he added.
Twitter user @RonanInManila described this as “lip service,” a phrase or statement of advocacy that is insincere or not backed by actions.
“I don’t understand why commentators are in awe at Duterte’s UNGA speech. Style wise, I find it rather standard, average. As per the content, that’s not the first time he asserts The Hague’s ruling. The problem is we all know this is nothing more than lip service,” the user wrote.
From “Welcome to China” roaming alert to a music video, the public noticed several forms of Chinese propaganda and invasion since last year, which earned heavy backlash and boycott from Filipinos.