United Nations

From Duterte to BTS: Why Filipinos should tune in to 76th UN General Assembly

Mara Cepeda
From Duterte to BTS: Why Filipinos should tune in to 76th UN General Assembly
There is much at stake for Filipinos in the top priorities of the UNGA this year, like COVID-19 vaccine equity and climate change

World leaders are once again coming together for the most important diplomatic stage before the United Nations.

The 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) – the main policy-making body of the organization – is happening in 2021 against the backdrop of the surging coronavirus pandemic, extreme weather conditions, and deteriorating humanitarian and security crises all over the planet. 

Heads of state and diplomats are expected to discuss these pressing issues during the UNGA’s General Debate, set to kick off this Tuesday, September 21, until next Monday, September 27. 

Due to the threat of COVID-19, about a third of the 193 UN states are sending pre-recorded messages during the debates instead. But a majority of presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers are still expected to fly to the UN’s headquarters in New York.

But why should Filipinos care about these high-level meetings and events in the United Nations?

Duterte joins General Debate for the last time as PH president

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to face the General Assembly between 4 am to 6 am on September 22 (Manila time). 

This is also the last time he would be joining the General Debate as leader of the Philippines, as Duterte’s term expires in June 2022. The UNGA convenes annually from September to December.

Duterte has often been criticized for his parochial view of global affairs and has aligned himself more with China and Russia than with Western democracies most associated with the UN.

He has belittled and even threatened the UN in the past over criticisms of his brutal drug war and other human rights abuses in the Philippines.

Duterte will be facing the 76th UNGA on Tuesday just days after the International Criminal Court’s pre-trial chamber ruled he should be investigated for alleged crimes against humanity committed in his brutal drug war, where thousands of drug suspects have been killed. 

Malacañang said Duterte’s address before the 76th UNGA will include “human rights, including the situation of migrant workers and refugees.”

It would not be surprising if Duterte would use the speech to defend his government’s human rights record and discredit critics of his anti-illegal drugs campaign. He did the same thing when he joined the UNGA for the first time in 2020. 

Duterte also made history in his first UNGA speech by raising the Philippines’ historic arbitral victory against China over the West Philippine Sea. But Duterte still largely holds a defeatist approach towards Chinese militarization in Philippine waters.

Filipinos need more access to COVID-19 vaccines

The Philippine President is also expected to call for universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, an appeal Duterte earlier made before the UN in December 2020.

Duterte, however, has long been criticized for mismanaging the health crisis, the slow pace of the vaccination rollout among Filipinos, and his flip-flopping pandemic policies. 

The Philippine government recently raised its target COVID-19 vaccination coverage to include 90% of the country’s population. This comes after the highly infectious Delta variant ramped up herd immunity thresholds for the disease. 

But this is a ambitious goal for the developing country, as the Philippines is expected to be among the last countries in Southeast Asia to reach herd immunity due to the lack of adequate vaccine supply and varying degrees of efficiency in rolling out vaccines across the archipelago.

As of September 8, only 14.37% of Filipinos has been fully vaccinated. 

The Philippines would thus be among the developing countries that stand to benefit from world leaders’ efforts during UNGA to improve the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

United States President Joe Biden will be convening a virtual COVID-19 summit on the margins of the UNGA on Wednesday, September 22, with the end-goal of boosting vaccinations worldwide and ending the pandemic by December 2022. 

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Duterte’s mouthpiece Harry Roque wants a job with the UN

The UNGA meetings are also crucial for Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque, who is now hoping to become a member of the prestigious International Law Commission (ILC) despite repeatedly mocking the UN the way his boss does.

The ILC is a body created by the UNGA in 1947 to help form rules and legal norms to be adopted by UN member-states. Being a member of the ILC is considered to be a prestigious post among international law scholars.

Roque had been nominated by the Duterte administration in June to be among the 34 members of the ILC.

Election for the new ILC members won’t be held until November 12, but Duterte’s mouthpiece has confirmed he is currently in New York to help boost his bid. 

Several groups have fiercely opposed Roque’s possible inclusion into the ILC, with some even going as far as writing to representatives of UN member-states to dissuade them from voting in favor of Roque. 

They argued Roque’s credentials in international law have now been overshadowed by the former human rights lawyer’s sustained defense of Duterte’s abusive policies. 

If elected into the ILC, Roque said he would push for a treaty for vaccine equality among countries and for a treaty where countries would recognize as conclusive the laws identifying territories of countries and ensuing maritime jurisdictions, even in the event of sea level rise driven by climate change.

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PH Ambassador Manalo is one of the 76th UNGA’s vice presidents

Ambassador Enrique Manalo, the Philippines’ permanent representative to the United Nations, was elected as one of the vice presidents for the 76th UNGA. Manalo briefly served as secretary of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in 2017. 

The Philippines joins Bangladesh, Kuwait, and Laos as VPs representing the Asia-Pacific Group’s 54 member-states. 

Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid of Maldives is the president of the 76th UNGA.

PH must show commitment to its climate pledge

Duterte’s address before the UNGA would also be a good opportunity for the Philippines to demonstrate its commitment to cut down its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 75% from 2020 to 2030

After years of deriding the historic Paris climate change agreement, Duterte had finally submitted to the UN its climate commitment in April 2021. 

This makes the Philippines one of the last countries party to the 2015 Paris climate change agreement to submit their first Nationally Determined Contribution to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

But while the Philippines vows to reduce GHG emissions by 75%, only 2.71% of this is an unconditional target, meaning the government commits to make this reduction using its own resources, with or without external aid. 

The remaining 72.29% reduction would only be met if the Philippines is provided assistance from the international community. 

In his December 2020 speech before the UN, Duterte said rich countries should lead in drastically reducing carbon missions and they must step up efforts to curb global warming.

“Developed countries must lead in deep and drastic cuts in carbon emissions. They must act now, or it would be too late. Or if I may say addedly, it is too late,” said Duterte. 

K-pop sensation BTS to speak, perform before world leaders

Filipino ARMYs will be in for a treat as South Korea’s BTS will be attending the UNGA for the third time.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in earlier appointed BTS as “Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture.”

As celebrity diplomats, BTS members will be delivering remarks to call out racism and hate speech during the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Moment event at 8 pm on Monday, September 20, Manila time. 

They are also expected to perform before world leaders gathered in the UN. 

The UN has also appointed wildly popular K-pop girl group BLACKPINK among its new SDG advocates, to join the likes of Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, STEM activist Chica Rosadita, and Microsoft president Brad Smith. – Rappler.com

Rappler multimedia journalist Mara Cepeda is a 2021 fellow of the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship. She will be virtually covering the 76th United Nations General Assembly, foreign policy, and diplomacy during the program.

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.