PH lawyer vs China: ‘Giant slayer’ who defeated US

Paterno R. Esmaquel II
PH lawyer vs China: ‘Giant slayer’ who defeated US
Paul Reichler, the Philippines' chief counsel in its case against China, is known for 'representing small countries against big ones'

MANILA, Philippines – In June 1986, a 38-year-old American lawyer defeated his homeland, the United States, in a landmark case that proved big countries cannot simply snub international rulings.

Paul Reichler won this case for Nicaragua, a poor Latin American country that sued the US for funding rebels against a left-wing government. 

Nearly 3 decades later, he defends another small country against a rising superpower, in fact its third biggest trading partner. 

Reichler, called a “giant slayer,” is the Philippines’ chief counsel in its historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

From July 7 to 13, he is leading a powerhouse team before an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, to defend the Philippines. (READ: EXPLAINER: Philippines’ 5 arguments vs China

“I will simply say that the entire legal team that has been engaged by the Philippines believes that the Philippines has a strong case, both on jurisdiction and on the merits,” Reichler told Rappler in February 2014.

He is now a partner at the 7-decade-old firm FoleyHoag in the US. He serves as co-chair of its International Litigation and Arbitration Department.

Reichler rose to fame in 1984, only 11 years after he finished his law degree at Harvard Law School, cum laude, in 1973.

Back then, he represented Nicaragua’s government before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a historic case against the US. 

‘US saved face’

Nicaragua accused the US of funding the contra force to topple the Latin American country’s Sandinista government. It also said the US placed mines in Nicaraguan ports or waters.

The ICJ sided with Nicaragua because the US violated, among other things, “the principle of non-use of force.” 

The court ordered the US to pay Nicaragua $370.2 million.

The US refused to heed the ruling.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court said Nicaragua, however, petitioned the United Nations (UN) to force the US to follow the ICJ. It also courted the support of other countries.

It came to a point it “was costing the US tremendously in terms of reputation,” Carpio told Rappler in an interview. “It claims to be the exponent, the number one advocate of the rule of law, yet it was glaringly in violation of international law. The world was telling the US, ‘You violate international law.'”

Carpio said the US eventually “gave Nicaragua half a billion dollars in economic aid.” Nicaragua’s president, on the other hand, requested the country’s parliament “to repeal the law that required the US to pay the damages.”

“Eventually there was compliance, in a way that saved the face of the US,” Carpio said. (READ: China, like US in old case, will comply with ruling – SC justice)

And Reichler was behind all these. 

‘Largely unknown lawyer’ but…

In the 1980s, his role even merited profile stories. 

In December 1984, the Washington Post attributed to him one of Nicaragua’s first victories. The ICJ had said it has jurisdiction over Nicaragua’s case.

“Nicaragua’s preliminary victory over the United States in the World Court last week was engineered by a largely unknown Washington lawyer who left jobs at two prestigious law firms as he persisted in representing the Sandinista government,” the Washington Post wrote. 

The New York Times (NYT), in February 1988, added that Reichler had been “a legal counselor for the Nicaraguan government since the beginning of the Sandinista days.” 

In June 1988, NYT also said: “In the 9 years since the Sandinistas seized power, many Americans have come to their defense. But none has earned their confidence as fully as Mr Reichler, a 40-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School.”

Reichler said in an interview: “There is one issue that I feel strongly about as a matter of principle: that issue is the war the US has financed and directed against Nicaragua through the contras…For me above all as an American, this war has to be stopped. It is illegal, immoral, and contrary to the best interests of my country.”

“I think for the Reagan administration to flagrantly violate international law as it is doing in Nicaragua is not only wrong in itself but contrary to the best interests of the US. It squanders our moral authority as a world leader, and by weakening the system of international law it encourages other states to flout the law with impunity,” he said.

‘Representing small countries’

Since then, Reichler has been known for “representing small countries against big ones,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote in October 2013.

In 2012, the lawyer also helped Nicaragua and Bangladesh in separate boundary disputes. 

“In a court, or before an arbitral tribunal, a small state that is weaker militarily, economically, commercially, has the opportunity at least to compete on equal terms with a much larger, more powerful state,” Reichler said as Manila sued Beijing

The WSJ asked Reichler in 2013 if his firm does not “worry about offending China” by lawyering for the Philippines.

Reichler recounted their experience in previous cases.

He said: “My FoleyHoag colleagues and I faced a choice: fight for justice, or avoid antagonizing the rich and powerful who could, if we cultivated them instead of suing them, become very profitable clients for the firm. Because we became lawyers to fight for justice, we have never hesitated in making these choices.”

Reichler became the Philippines’ lawyer after Manila “conducted a global search,” a high-placed Philippine official told WSJ. “We wanted the best.” 

For one, the American Lawyer publication called him “Mr World Court,” having been “counsel in 6 of the World Court’s 15 pending cases.” 

The Philippines’ lawyer against China, the magazine said, “has carved out a unique practice as the giant slayer of public international law.” –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email