Senators praise Duterte’s speech at UN General Assembly

Senators on Wednesday, September 23, praised President Rodrigo Duterte for the speech he delivered before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.

Two lawmakers commended Duterte’s expression of an “unequivocal stance” on the country’s territorial dispute with China. The President had invoked the July 2016 international arbitral award by a UN-backed tribunal that affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.

“‘Alipin’ (Slave) no more! Hearing the President invoke the Award before the UN General Assembly while firmly rejecting any attempt to undermine it should now erase doubts on where he stands regarding the West Philippine Sea issue,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson in a statement.

Filipinos, regardless of their politics, should feel proud having heard Duterte’s “strong and unequivocal position” on the West Philippine Sea issue, Lacson added.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, meanwhile, commended the team who wrote the President’s speech.

“If there’s an Emmy for the UN General Assembly speeches, the one he delivered can win the prize for the best written,” said Recto in a separate statement.

“The team who put policies to prose should be congratulated. What they put together is the template for presidential addresses: cohesive, coherent, and straight to the point,” Recto added.

Like Lacson, Recto said Duterte’s “unequivocal stance against China’s illegal reclamation in our seas” should rule out any “ambivalence” on where the President and the government stand on the issue.

'He should do the same to his own people'

Recto said the President should speak with the same degree of clarity when addressing the country. Duterte has been putting out weekly televised public addresses during the pandemic.

“If he was able to convey his thoughts with clarity to the world, all the more he should do the same to his own people at this time when they need hope and direction,” Recto said.

Different quarters, including many Filipinos on social media, have found Duterte’s usual public addresses could be disappointing, confusing, at times even incendiary and misleading.

Duterte in April said to “shoot dead” people who would violate community quarantine rules. In March, he said medical frontliners who succumbed to COVID-19 were “lucky to die” for the country. In July, the President said gasoline and diesel could be used to disinfect face masks – which experts negated and Malacañang said was a joke, but Duterte later insisted on.

'Very comprehensive'

Senator Richard Gordon on Thursday, September 24, hailed Duterte’s speech as “very comprehensive, projecting Philippine policies and concerns ranging from the West Philippine Sea claims, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, to the plight of migrants and migrant workers.”

“I strongly support his statement on the South China Sea issue, strongly affirming the constitutional provisions on having an independent foreign policy and adherence to the generally accepted principles of international law,” Gordon said.

The senator also noted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that Beijing has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country.”

Opposition: Words into action

Opposition senator Risa Hontiveros “welcomed” Duterte’s “public recognition of our 2016 legal victory against China over our disputed waters,” saying his declaration was “a crucial, much-needed step toward truly asserting our rights over the West Philippine Sea.”

Hontiveros urged Duterte to let his resolve “mirror reality” – and called for the enforcement of Philippine laws in the country’s maritime exclusive economic zone, increased presence and joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea, and safeguarding the lives and livelihood of Filipino fishing communities.

“I am encouraged by his tone before the UN, and I do believe in the power of words. But, as always, I will remain watchful as to how these words translate into action,” Hontiveros said.

Senator Leila de Lima, long at odds with Duterte, said she “highly doubts” if the President gave that speech of his own accord, or if it was “fed to him.”

The opposition senator said the tough language on China was uncharacteristic of Duterte. She noted the President’s mention of the “weaponization” of human rights as the only item in the speech consistent with his policies.

De Lima is detained over illegal drug cases filed against her by the administration after she probed Duterte’s war on drugs. She said the President’s showing before the UN General Assembly was “plastic” and “fake.”

Unprecedented move

In his historic speech at the UN General Assembly, Duterte directly mentioned the arbitral award and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, on which it is anchored. This was an unprecedented move by Duterte, who had been lenient toward China in terms of policy and rhetoric.

"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," Duterte told the UN body, speaking in a video recorded from Manila.

“From where he spoke, with the whole world watching, he was able to plant our flag on a territory that historically and legally is ours,” said Recto.

“More importantly, I hope that China heard the President's message loud and clear,” Lacson said. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.