Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went on the offensive over the South China Sea on Wednesday, in his first-ever address to the United Nations General Assembly, stressing his country’s legal victory at The Hague in its long-simmering maritime dispute with China.
In a video address recorded in Manila, Duterte said that the Philippines has rights over the parts of the South China Sea that The Hague ruling declared to be within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon,” Duterte said.
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”
In his more than four years in office, it was the first time that Duterte had addressed the UN body, which marks its 75th anniversary this year.
His statement on the South China Sea dispute is seen as the strongest so far, given his previous pronouncements downplaying the issue in exchange for Manila’s closer geopolitical and economic ties with Beijing.
Duterte is under growing pressure at home to challenge China – after largely setting aside the standoff for years – with tensions high after a Chinese fishing trawler hit and sank a Filipino boat in the contested waters in 2019, and after China’s continued expansion of artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Over the past decade, China has built up military installations on several disputed reefs and outcrops in the South China Sea to assert its claim to almost the entire sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia also have claims to the waters.
‘Illegal nine-dash line claim’
Beijing bases its claims on the so-called nine-dash line, a vague delineation from maps dating back to the 1940s, which was declared illegal in a 2016 ruling at The Hague. The court found that the Philippines has exclusive rights to resources within 370.4km (200 nautical miles) of its coast.
In recent months, tensions have escalated as several world powers, including the United States and India, have sent warships and other naval vessels to patrol the disputed seas in an effort to enforce The Hague ruling and assert freedom of navigation.
In his address on Wednesday, Duterte said that he welcomes “the increasing number of states that have come out 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 [be],” he said, “is the majesty of the law.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera and other news outlets, retired Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio T Carpio, a top critic of Duterte’s South China Sea policy, welcomed the president’s statement as “heartening”.
“I fervently hope that this is the policy that the Duterte administration will implement 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.”
Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that with his statement, Duterte has proven that he is “not is not at all impervious, but listens to the will of his countrymen.”
“By invoking the arbitral award (Hague ruling), the president has acted more faithfully to our constitution, which mandates him and our military to secure our country’s sovereignty and protect our lands and seas.”
Duterte also used the speech to address the condemnation of the “drug war” that he began soon after taking office. He accused “interest groups” of trying to “weaponise” human rights issues to criticise the campaign in which thousands of people have been killed.
Human rights groups have been pressing the UN to conduct a full investigation into the drug war, accusing Duterte of carrying out crimes against humanity.
“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 enjoys the same widespread approval and support,” he said.
In response, the activist and rights group, Karapatan, denounced Duterte’s speech as “posturing”, adding that the president is trying to vilify human rights defenders and “undermine their calls for accountability.”