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Philippines’ Duterte to Address UN General Assembly for the First Time

Aie Balagtas See and Jojo Rinoza
Manila/Dagupan, Philippines
2020-09-21
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Activists protest against alleged extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs, during a march in Manila on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2019.
Activists protest against alleged extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs, during a march in Manila on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2019.
[Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set this week to address the U.N. General Assembly for the first time and is expected to talk about human rights in his country, tensions in the South China Sea and Manila’s response to COVID-19, a spokesman said Monday.

Duterte’s virtual address to the United Nations on Tuesday comes after years of his rebuffing the world body’s annual meeting of member-state leaders and criticizing the U.N. over concerns it has raised about his administration’s controversial war on illegal drugs.

“The United Nations is the world’s biggest platform where one country can articulate a country’s position on many items and many issues. This is why he decided to join the U.N.’s high-level debate this month,” Robert Eric Borje, chief presidential protocol and presidential assistant, told a press briefing in Manila, noting Duterte had decided to take part in this year’s General Assembly session because the United Nations was marking the 75th anniversary of its founding.

“It’s the intensity and the urgency needed to address global issues. The president recognizes that the Philippines cannot do it alone,” Borje said.

Duterte is expected “to articulate Philippine positions on a wide range of issues of key importance to the country,” the state-run Philippine News Agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

He cited issues including “the global response to the coronavirus pandemic; peace and security, including terrorism and geopolitical developments in the Asia Pacific … the rule of law; justice and human rights.”

Duterte would “address the global community on what he feels were core issues important to the Philippines,” Borje added.

Human rights

In his speech, Duterte is expected to talk about the much criticized crackdown on drugs in the Philippines since he assumed office in June 2016.

As early as in August 2016, two U.N. human rights experts had urged Manila to stop what they said were extrajudicial killings that have escalated since Duterte won the presidency on a campaign promise of eliminating the country’s drug problem, Reuters reported.

Back then, an enraged Duterte, in an insult-laden speech, lambasted the U.N. for the criticism and threatened to pull the Philippine out of the world’s leading peace-making body.

“I do not want to insult you. But maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations,” he said at a news conference in August 2016.

Since then, criticism of this campaign from the international community has only intensified.

Just last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she remained “concerned by continued reports of drug-related killings, by both police and vigilantes, including during COVID-related restrictions on movement” in the Philippines.

On Sunday, the government said that drug dealers and traffickers had not stopped amid the pandemic, and that from January to June alone, the police had seized some 900 kilos of methamphetamine with a street value of about six billion pesos (U.S. $130 million).

“During the pandemic, surprisingly, a lot of illegal drugs were still retrieved,” Archie Gamboa, the recently retired national police chief, said in a statement. “They are not ceasing. Although we have a theory that these were drugs that were not sold and just accumulated. So even in the time of pandemic, business still continues.”

According to official statistics, the war on drugs has killed more than 6,600 suspected drug dealers and addicts. Meanwhile, rights groups say that thousands of others have also been killed by vigilante groups with ties to the government, an allegation that the government has repeatedly denied.

Fifty-two policemen have also been slain in drug related operations, while 153 have been wounded in the past four years, Gamboa’s statement on Sunday said.

South China Sea

On Monday, also Borje said he expected Duterte to address concerns about rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

“Indeed, the President will be able to address that,” Borje said, noting that he could not comment on how strong Duterte’s statement would be, PNA reported.

Despite China’s and the Philippines’ overlapping claims in parts of the disputed South China Sea, Duterte since coming to power has attempted to distance his country from the U.S. and move closer to Washington’s rival, China.

This policy, though, has led to an often-confusing balancing act by Duterte’s administration.

For instance, on Monday, the Philippines’ top diplomat told Congress that a code of conduct that Southeast Asian countries were negotiating with China over the South China Sea would not exclude Western nations from access to the strategic waterway.

“We believe in the balance of power, that the freedom of Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said, days after Beijing urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to resist American interference in the region.

However, the same administration said earlier this month that the Philippines wouldn’t cut business ties with the Chinese firms Washington blacklisted in August for their alleged roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The Philippine government said it would work with these Chinese companies because it was in the “national interest” to complete flagship infrastructure projects in the country involving these firms.

“We are not a vassal state of any foreign power and we will pursue our national interest,” chief presidential spokesman Harry Roque said at the time. “[T]he president was clear, he will not follow the directive of the Americans because we are a free and independent country, and we need Chinese investments.”

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