By Atty. Howie Calleja
The world’s longest lockdown seems unbearable every time I hear my kids bickering. A true test of my skills as a father is to help them understand why they should avoid hurtful words to each other. I often tell them that the words you say can leave a lasting impression on someone else, even after your statements are long gone from your own memory. This helps them better understand the impact of their words, and how it will reflect who they are, to ensure they think before they speak. After all, the ax forgets what the tree remembers.
Last week, the public was informed that our President would address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). For someone that doesn’t believe in mincing words, and often goes off-script for his late-night rants, this gave us all concern. Would he stick to the script and attempt to remain diplomatic throughout his entire address? Or would he make one of his many off-handed jokes, at the expense of the Filipino people? What happened left us all happily surprised – President Duterte actually raised the Philippines’ victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) before the leaders of the nation, and proclaimed it as part of international law.
While I could just have easily focused on the disappointments, particularly the attempt to blame human rights defenders for “weaponizing” human rights, I chose to focus on the positive aspects of his speech. Finally, I thought, the leadership had recognized, in front of the international community, the importance of upholding our country’s victory in the PCA to maintain peace in the region. Our President even uncharacteristically thanked allies who announced their support in our claim over parts of the West Philippine Sea. Attempts by Beijing to undermine our rights within our own exclusive economic zone had finally been rejected on an international stage, and the importance of adherence to international law finally accentuated, and in an eloquent manner. It all seemed too good to be true.
Alas, as we celebrated the long-overdue strong stance on our rights in the West Philippine Sea, we were disappointed, once again. As out of character as the raising of the arbitral ruling before the UNGA was, it was only a few days later that we snapped back to reality. In what seemed to be a massive u-turn, Malacañang affirmed a continuation of all bilateral agreements with China. Even Chinese firms illegally working in the highly-contested waters are still in good standing with this administration, though blacklisted in other countries. Standing before the General Assembly and asserting that the award of PCA was beyond compromise, only to essentially retract the position a few days later by stating that he only meant China could not overturn the ruling, only makes those who believed him the fool.
With China’s increased presence, despite no legal claim, comes escalating tensions and further risk of military clashes. These are no longer isolated incidents, it’s practically the norm to see China flex her muscles without any condemnation or attempts to obtain restitution. Yet, the first hope of calling the attention of the international community is sorely wasted. We cannot hope to ask our allies in the United Nations for assistance in upholding the ruling when we ourselves do not take action. The denial by the Hague of any historical rights was not easily handed to China in 2016 and, more than four years later, we have done little in the way of asserting the favorable ruling. All that we have accomplished is empty rhetoric and more broken statements and false promises. The words before the United Nations are wasted when the policy is not implemented to protect our Exclusive Economic Zone in the West Philippine Sea.
What a tough way to be reminded that, with this administration, we cannot take words at face value; we must always remain cautious, and look beyond promises. It was much too early to hope for a change in our pro-China policy and this administration remains to be inconsistent. Powerful words, even when proclaimed in front of the United Nations, must still be translated into action. Trust, they say, is the foundation of any relationship. When the Filipino is kept on his toes, wondering what to believe and hoping for any sort of consistency between words and actions, what then is his relationship with his government? He is asked to trust in the leadership, but the leadership makes no efforts to be consistent. Why should we teach children to understand the importance of thinking before they speak, but those in charge of our diplomatic efforts do not learn the same lesson?