Rodrigo Duterte

CONTEXT: Vaccines, drug war, more at Duterte’s UN General Assembly speech

Vernise Tantuco
CONTEXT: Vaccines, drug war, more at Duterte’s UN General Assembly speech
What was said – and wasn't said – at Duterte's last UNGA address?

President Rodrigo Duterte faced the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the last time during his term on Tuesday, September 21 (Wednesday, September 22, Manila time), and spoke about key issues facing his administration as he leaves office. 

In a taped address, the President spoke about COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and the West Philippine Sea, among other topics. What was said – and wasn’t said – during his speech? 

Below, we give context to some of the key issues the President mentioned during his address.


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COVID-19 vaccines

What was said:

“There is a man-made drought of vaccines ravaging poor countries.

“Rich countries hoard life-saving vaccines, while poor nations wait for trickles. They now talk of booster shots, while developing countries consider half-doses just to get by.

“This is shocking beyond belief and must be condemned for what it is – a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally nor morally.

“The plain fact is – this pandemic will not end unless the virus is defeated everywhere. Vaccines are key to achieving this.

“This is why the Philippines committed One Million Dollars to the UN’s COVAX Facility. This is our modest contribution to our collective fight against COVID-19.

“We strongly urge our privileged partners to fully support the COVAX Facility and further strengthen other cooperation mechanisms. We need this to save more lives, break the cycle of variants and help ensure global economic recovery.”


The President has been adamant about vaccination, even going so far as threatening on June 21 to imprison anyone who doesn’t receive a vaccine. His officials later said that Duterte was just using strong words, and his spokesperson Harry Roque said he just meant “to emphasize what the State can do.” Despite threatening mandatory vaccination, Duterte has also been known to be lax about COVID-19 safety protocols, having asked a reporter in February to take off her face mask and face shield during a press conference. (READ: Many unknowns in Duterte’s COVID-19 jab as PH fights vaccine hesitancy)

The Health Department has also been flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) for their misuse of COVID-19 funds, including an unused P3.4 billion in foreign aid that was supposed to be for pandemic response. (READ: COA: DOH’s low utilization of crisis funds affected health services)

As of Monday, 64,942,000 vaccine doses have been delivered to the Philippines and 41,793,930 doses have been administered out of those available. Around 20.84% of the country’s population have received the first dose of the vaccine. The government aims to vaccinate up to 70% of Filipinos in 2021. (READ: SCHEDULE: Philippines’ COVID-19 vaccine deliveries)

Climate change

What was said: 

“The greatest injustice here is that those who suffer the most are those the least responsible for this existential crisis.

“But here we are now at a critical tipping point, where failure to act leads to cataclysmic consequences for the whole of humankind.

“The Philippines accepts its share of responsibility and will do its part to avert this collective disaster. We have submitted our first Nationally Determined Contribution, with a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030.

“I issued a moratorium on the construction of new coal power plants and a directive to explore the nuclear energy option.

“But this contribution will be rendered useless if the biggest polluters – past and present – choose to do “business as usual.” We therefore appeal for urgent climate action, especially from those that can truly tip the balance.

“Developed countries must fulfill their longstanding commitment to climate financing, technology transfer, and capacity-building in the developing world. This a moral obligation that cannot be avoided.

“Our world’s transition to a green economy must not be at the expense of developing countries’ economic vitality. It simply cannot be – or it would be another travesty of justice.”


Even though Duterte derided the Paris agreement when he entered office in 2016, his administration finally submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in April. (READ: Philippine banks move at slow pace in defunding coal)

The Philippines promised to cut down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 75% from 2020 to 2030. However, only 2.71% of this is an unconditional target, or a target the government will achieve without external aid, an amount that environmental groups have criticized as “negligible.”

Meanwhile, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published on August 9 said that the amount of GHG emissions humans have spewed into the atmosphere will cause worsening floods, rains, heatwaves, and drought in the Philippines for the next 30 years, no matter what actions we take today. The country could experience bursts of extreme rainfall and extreme water shortage, which is a threat to agriculture.

The Duterte administration has backed a Department of Water Resources, but bills creating it are yet to hurdle the House of Representatives and the Senate. (READ: Who’s accountable for typhoon impact? Malacañang blames climate change)

Drug war

What was said: 

“The Filipino people want to live in peace and security in their homes and communities – free from harm and danger from the lawless.

“But achieving this goal has not been without challenges.

“I say this in no uncertain terms: The law applies to all.

“I have instructed the Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police to review the conduct of our campaign against illegal drugs. Those found to have acted beyond bounds during operations shall be made accountable before our laws.”


The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) reported that there were 6,181 persons who died during the government’s anti-drug operations as of July 31. However, data obtained by Rappler showed that there were 7,884 drug suspects killed by police from the time Duterte assumed office to August 31, 2020. This does not include the 27,000 vigilante killings outside of police operations that human rights groups have estimated.

In 2016, even during his election campaign, Duterte had given “shoot to kill” orders against criminals and drug users who resisted arrest. Eventually, he would flip-flop and give “shoot to kill” orders even if criminals didn’t resist arrest. He also said he would protect policemen who did their duty, even if they killed a thousand people in the course of their work. (READ: Shoot to kill? Duterte’s statements on killing drug users)

The International Criminal Court green-lit on September 15 an investigation into these killings that will look at Duterte’s war on drugs and the killings by the so-called Davao Death Squad when he was mayor and vice mayor of Davao City. This followed Duterte’s State of the Nation Address on July 26, where he dared the ICC to record even his threats against those who “destroy” the country with illegal drugs. (READ: Duterte taunts ICC in SONA 2021: I never denied ‘I will kill’ in war vs drugs)

Aside from killings in relation to the drug war, there have been at least 65 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers killed during the Duterte administration, as of September 16, 2021. There have also been at least 11 vice mayors and 18 mayors slain​, ​based on media reports between July 2016 and March 8, 2021.

West Philippine Sea

What was said: 

“We must resolve disputes peacefully, as we manifested in the Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes.

“The Philippines is one with ASEAN and other stakeholders in ensuring that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, security and prosperity.

“The 1982 UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea provide a clear path towards a just, fair, and win-win solution for all.

“The Award must be seen for what it is – a benefit across the board to all who subscribe to the majesty of the law.

“No amount of willful disregard by any country, however big and powerful, can diminish the Arbitral Award’s importance.”


Duterte entered his presidency with a strong stance on the West Philippine Sea (WPS). He even promised in the Cagayan de Oro presidential debates in February 2016 that he would plant the Philippine flag in the Spratlys or Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal via jetski. In May, he dismissed the statement as a joke. (READ: Fisherman who asked Duterte in 2016 debate says President became a joke too)

The President has made it evident that he wants to preserve good ties with China over all else, having flip-flopped and given contradicting statements on the Philippines’ battle over the WPS. This is despite the efforts of some of his diplomatic and defense officials to assert the Philippines’ right over its own waters. (READ: Duterte and the West Philippine Sea: A strategy of failed compromises)

The president said in his July 26 State of the Nation Address (SONA) promise that he would bring up China’s encroachment on the WPS at the United Nations. Even during the SONA, though, Duterte took a defeatist stance, telling Filipinos: “How can we fight China? Do we have the weapons, do we have everything?” 

He said that asserting our rights over the WPS would court war with China, a position that has been dismissed by experts as misguided and misplaced. 

Aside from Duterte, world leaders like US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the UN on Tuesday, either ​​virtually or live at the UN’s headquarters in New York. The UNGA’s General Debate will continue until September 27. –

Vernise Tantuco

Vernise Tantuco is on Rappler's Research Team, fact checking suspicious claims, wrangling data, and telling stories that need to be heard.