Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went on the offensive over the South China Sea in his very first address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, underscoring his country’s legal victory in The Hague in its long-smoldering maritime dispute with China.
In a video address taped in Manila, Duterte said the Philippines has rights to those parts of the South China Sea that the Hague judgment has declared as part of the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of temporary governments to dilute, reduce or abandon,” Duterte said.
“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”
In his more than four years in office, it was the first time that Duterte spoke before the UN body, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
His statement on the dispute over the South China Sea is believed to be the strongest yet, as his earlier statements downplayed the issue in exchange for Manila’s closer geopolitical and economic ties with Beijing.
At home, Duterte is under increasing pressure to challenge China – having largely lifted the stalemate for years – with high tensions after a Chinese fishing trawler hit and sunk a Filipino boat in the contested waters in 2019 and after China continued to develop artificial islands Economic Zone of the Philippines.
Over the past decade, China has built military installations on several controversial reefs and outcrops in the South China Sea to assert claims to almost all of the sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia also have rights to the waters.
Beijing bases its claims on what is known as the nine-dash line, a vague delimitation of maps from the 1940s that was ruled illegal in a 2016 ruling in The Hague. The court ruled that the Philippines has exclusive rights to resources within 370.4 km (200 nautical miles) of its coast.
Tensions have risen in recent months as several world powers, including the United States and India, dispatched warships and other naval vessels to patrol the disputed seas to enforce the Hague ruling and enforce free navigation.
In his address on Wednesday, Duterte said he welcomed “the growing number of states that have voted for the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rash, the law over disorder, friendship over ambition”.
“That – as it should [be]”He said,” is the majesty of the law. “
Duterte also used the speech to address the condemnation of the “drug war” that he began shortly after taking office. He accused “pressure groups” of attempting to “arm” human rights issues in order to criticize the campaign that killed thousands of people.
Human rights groups have called on the United Nations to conduct a full investigation into the drug war and accused Duterte of crimes against humanity.
“They are trying to discredit the functioning institutions and mechanisms of a democratic country and a popularly elected government that have still enjoyed the same broad approval and support over the past two years,” he said.