Secretary Albert del Rosario, the indomitable

By July, it will be seven years since the Philippines took the world by surprise by winning its case against People’s China at the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. Our team of diplomats and lawyers was headed by Mr. Albert F. del Rosario, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary during the term of the late President Benigno Aquino III. Before The Hague, Sec. del Rosario spoke at the United Nations about our case, pointedly invoking Part XV of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea ( UNCLOS) which contains provisions for the resolution of disputes that make it possible for the weak, “…to challenge the powerful on an equal footing…”

Lamentably, this patriot with patrician bearing passed on last 18 April, leaving his fellow Filipinos orphaned, just when we urgently need his wisdom and gentle diplomacy. Already, he is sorely missed now that the Philippines is on the brink of being caught in the crossfire of warring imperial powers.

I looked for that United Nations speech and read it again as if it were a last will and testament. Sec. del Rosario expounded on why the Philippines (RP) took China to the Arbitral Tribunal; it was important, not only for us but for the world in general. He began by reminding the audience that the Philippines is proud to be a founding member of the UN and an active participant as well. The UN and its agencies coupled with the power of international law serve as the great equalizer allowing countries like the Philippines to stand on equal footing with wealthier and more powerful States.

The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (1982) is of central importance to the Philippines because it is an archipelagic State with a lengthy coastline and a seafaring tradition. The Philippines was among the first to sign the UNCLOS on 10 December 1982; it was ratified by the Senate on 8 May 1984. “The RP has implemented its rights and obligations in good faith,” said Sec. del Rosario. Philippine Congress amended certain laws in compliance with the UNCLOS: The previously straight baselines drawn in 1898 were converted to archipelagic ones to conform with Articles 16 and 17. The maritime zones of the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (to us, West Philippine Sea) are consistent with Article 121.

The Philippines was NOT (uppercase by Sec. del Rosario) asking the Arbitral Tribunal to rule on aspects of territorial sovereignty but to clarify maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, a question over which the Tribunal has jurisdiction. Sec. del Rosario said the outcome of the case will be vital for the Philippines, for all coastal States in the South China Sea, as well as for the State Parties of UNCLOS.

As far as the RP is concerned, the UNCLOS defines, establishes and limits maritime entitlements of coastal States, territorial seas, economic zones, continental shelves and the rights and obligations of State Parties within the said zones. The UNCLOS also precludes claims to broader entitlements, sovereign rights, or jurisdiction over maritime areas beyond the limits of the EEZ or continental shelf. In particular, the Convention does not recognize, nor permit the exercise of so-called “historic rights” in areas beyond the limits of the maritime zones that are recognized or established by UNCLOS.

Sec. del Rosario said that sadly, China disputes all the above in both words and deeds, on the basis of so-called “historic rights”. China believes it is entitled to sovereign rights and jurisdiction over resources of the sea and seabed beyond the limits indicated by UNCLOS. He affirmed that China has breached the UNCLOS by violating our sovereign rights and jurisdiction. China has pursued activities in disputed maritime areas with such overwhelming force that the RP’s only recourse is to invoke international law. Said the late Secretary: “That is why it is important for us to submit to the rule of law in general, and for the Tribunal to decide where and to what limit China has maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, where and what limits the RP has maritime entitlements, where and to what extent these overlap and where they do not.” None of those issues requires the Tribunal to make any determination with regard to land sovereignty or the delimitation of maritime boundaries. The Philippines placed before the Tribunal only claims arising directly from the terms of UNCLOS.

Sec. del Rosario continued: “ If China can defy the limits placed by the UNCLOS on its maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and disregard the entitlements of the Philippines under the UNCLOS, then what value is there in the Convention if small State Parties cannot be protected from bigger and better- armed neighbors? He threw down a glove, figuratively.

No one expected it, but the Philippines won the case at the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. Our deepest gratitude to the indomitable Sec.Albert del Rosario.