Leaning on its neighbors and the international community, the Philippines is banking on a wider support as it pursues its case against the wedging of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel the other weekend off the Recto Bank at the West Philippine Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to take up the issue with his counterparts when he attends the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit later this week in Bangkok, Thailand, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
This as Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy” Locsin spoke before the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at the UN Headquarters in New York on Monday, when he asked UN-member states to enforce their duty of mutual support under the convention rules.
Locsin said the member-states’ duty to render assistance to persons in distress at sea was ignored when Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 rammed F/B Gem-Vir 1 near Recto Bank on the night of 9 June.
The DFA chief, who filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing immediately after the incident, said that the “duty to render assistance” is found in UNCLOS and in the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, as amended, and the IMO Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.
Both Philippines and China are signatories to the UNCLOS.
“It is the obligation of every member state of the UN and of the IMO to pay not just lip service to these conventions but to observe them in real life-and-death situations,” Locsin said in his speech.
The Chinese crew of the vessel did not attempt to rescue the 22 local fishermen, led by boat captain Junel Insigne. The Chinese seamen abandoned them floundering in the high seas.
This was contrary to the statement by Chinese Embassy in Manila which claimed that the Chinese had wanted to rescue the Filipino fishermen but feared they would have been “besieged” by other Filipino fishermen in the area.
Insigne belied this — saying the Chinese even turned off their lights before speeding away from the scene after the incident. He said they only called out help from a Vietnam vessel located miles away from their area of disaster.
Locsin stressed that rescuing people in distress is “a universally recognized obligation of people and governments; and in civil law and maybe even in common law.”
“It is a felony to abandon people in distress, especially when we cause that distress, and more so when it is no bother at all to save them at no risk to oneself. While no sanction is available in international law, it should be a cause of some concern,” he added.
In his statement, Locsin said that the Philippines has “strongly supported and upheld UNCLOS because it provides a comprehensive legal regime for the oceans and the seas. As the ‘constitution of the oceans,’ it affirms the rule of law in maritime space.”
“Rule of law must be adhered to by all States Parties in the belief that no one can thrive nor survive for long in anarchy. Whether international law can be enforced is another matter. And it doesn’t help that parties with the strength to enforce it — and who have invoked a lot the need for it — have not joined it,” Locsin pointed out.
Locsin was apparently referring to the United States which did not sign the convention.
On the basis of UNCLOS, Locsin said that the Philippines “filed a carefully crafted and successful complaint at The Hague to clarify the legal situation in the South China Sea, to remove the confusion or the pretext of confusion on the part of those violating it.”
DFA Assistant Secretary Junever Mahilum-West, meanwhile, confirmed the President’s participation in the Asean Summit on 22 to 23 June.
Asked if the recent Recto Bank incident involving a Chinese vessel and Filipino fishing boat will be among the subjects for discussion, West said “there’s an opening” for the Chief Executive to do so.
“Summits are not usually the place where you discuss issues,” West, director general of the ASEAN-Philippine National Secretariat, said during yesterday’s pre-departure briefing in Malacanang. “In general terms, probably. But not in terms of dealing specifically and full depth with the matter,” she added.
West went on by saying that Mr. Duterte nor anyone else from the Philippine government will call on the ASEAN to take a stand regarding the issue.
“For one thing, there is this investigation that’s ongoing, that up to the present discloses a certain fact that we did not know before. Also, we lodged a strong protest with China and we are awaiting China’s response to this,” explained West.
In another development, Quezon City 5th District Rep. Alfred Vargas advised the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to craft an administrative order requiring fishermen to equip their boats with search and safety devices in the light of the sinking of the Filipino fishing vessel.
“All Philippine fishing boats and passenger ships must be equipped with satellite phones, transponders for search and rescue, automatic identification, and global positioning system (GPS), and other related portable electronics, so the crew of these maritime vessels can call for help when they are in distress while out at sea.”
With Kristina Maralit and Keith Calayag