by JV L. Arcena, Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs Presidential, Communications Office
Diplomatic will probably not be the first word that would come to mind to some people and critics when describing President Rodrigo Duterte.
After all, diplomacy, some say, is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Others would liken it to winning a war without firing a single shot.
As for the President, he can, as many of his critics attest, be brutally frank at times, armed with a colorful language and a sense of humor that may be a little darker than others.
But when President Duterte delivered on Sept. 23 (Manila time) his debut speech before the United Nations General Assembly, he was every inch the country's chief diplomat, surprising even his harshest critics during the most high-profile event in international diplomacy.
The President's speech started fairly like a standard UN speech, with all the anticipated niceties as the Philippines joined 192 other member-states in marking the body's 75th anniversary.
There was the expected call for cooperation and multilateralism amid the biggest challenge besetting the UN and the world today: the COVID-19 pandemic that has left a global death toll of more than one million and counting.
"We are at a crossroads. How we address COVID-19 will define our future...We will need to ask hard and fundamental questions about the vision and mission that the United Nations conceptualized 75 years ago. We need to ask ourselves whether or not we have remained true and faithful to the United Nations’ principles and ideals," President Duterte said.
It was an appeal for unity in as much as it was a slight rebuke: Reform or perish.
"Indeed, to be ready for the new global normal, it cannot be business as usual for the UN," the President said.
He then underscored the need to ensure equal access to a safe and effective vaccine as he urged the UNGA to ensure that the World Health Organization has enough resources and policy space to address the pandemic more quickly and more efficiently.
And then came the latter half of his roughly 20-minute pre-recorded message streamed inside the UN headquarters in New York: President Duterte dropped one unprecedented statement after the other, bringing up the sea feud in the West Philippine Sea and addressing squarely issues of human rights violations leveled against his administration.
He raised the 2016 arbitral award that rejected Beijing’s excessive nine-dash-line claim before the UNGA, much to the chagrin of those who have consistently called him a lackey of China.
"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,” the President said.
It was a clear, unequivocal message delivered by the leader of a sovereign country to a superpower audience and to the world at large. Even the President's most vocal critics had to praise him for taking and making such a bold stance.
President Duterte also did not shy away from discussing accusations of human rights violations. He denounced what he described as efforts to weaponize human rights as he assured the UN that the Philippines is open to a dialog for as long as certain principles are observed, including that of non-interference.
"A number of interest groups have weaponized human rights; some well-meaning, others ill-intentioned...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.”
“To move forward, open dialogue and constructive engagement with the United Nations is the key. But these 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,” the President added.
Barely a month after he delivered his speech, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution endorsing support for the Philippines’ efforts to further strengthen its human rights and accountability mechanisms.
The 47-member intergovernmental body adopted unanimously a decision that acknowledged the country’s strong and open engagement with the UN, and promoted the provision of technical assistance from UN agencies and international partners in work areas on rule of law, justice, law enforcement and accountability processes, at the invitation of the government.
It was a significant departure from the Council's decision in July 2019 that called for the High Commissioner to report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, on the basis of allegations of extra-judicial killings.
According to Ambassador Evan Garcia, Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, this “constructive approach and positive way forward signifies unifying outcomes that arise when states recognize their common interest in promoting positive models of engagement in the Council that respect the principles of objectivity and non-interference."
The President's words, as well as the latest UN decision, sparked a robust chorus of indignation from groups that have been following closely allegations of human rights violations related to the administration's war on illegal drugs.
And that is fine.
Criticisms are part of the democracy that President Duterte sought to uphold when he raised the principle of non-interference, the bedrock of any state's sovereignty. That is the mark of a true diplomat-in-chief.
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