On July 12, 2021, we observe the fifth anniversary of the Award on the South China Sea Arbitration.
The Award conclusively settled the status of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. It declared as without legal effect claims that exceed geographic and substantive limits of maritime entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. So, it did not throw historic claims out the window; it discriminated among them.
It dashed among others a nine-dash line; and any expectation that possession is 9/10ths of the law. Because the mere fact of possession produces no legal effect, such as a territorial sea of any extent.
Thus, the Arbitral Award became and continues to be a milestone in the corpus of international law. It is available to other countries with the same problematic maritime features as ours. It puts one issue out of the way of conflict; because there is nothing there taken by force that results in any gain in law.
In summary, the Award gives littoral states guideposts on how much waters their features — be they islands or rocks — can generate, where their fishermen can fish, where they can exercise law enforcement patrols, where they can send their ships without permission from the nearest state, without creating a cause of action or a casus belli between them.
It benefits the world across the board. We do not see it as directed at any other country, near or far. We see it as it should be seen: as favoring all which are similarly situated by clarifying definitively a legal situation beyond the reach of arms to change. It puts this aspect of international law beyond the limit of prescription.
President Rodrigo Duterte firmly pronounced at the UN General Assembly, that “it is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” And so we celebrate the occasion.
The Philippines is proud to have contributed to the international rules-based order, to the affirmation of UNCLOS, and the strengthening of the legal order over the seas.
The Award is final. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories. Anniversaries are an occasion to take stock of the past, mark the gains of the present, look to the future and find ways to work together for mutual benefit since no singular advantage can be gained by violating it.
We are also celebrating this our gift to all countries without exception. It is a gift from a country that’s not a power except for right in law. In 2012 we were David all alone, up against Goliath, amid hosts of indifferent spectators.
We had not a friend or ally; we were lucky to get any attention at all. And then we prevailed; or rather right prevailed.
For the Arbitral Award was given to a set of maritime circumstances that would be as true in our waters as in others’. It is the legacy that a-not-rich country leaves to mankind along with a greater prospect of peace and cooperation.
Might does not make right. But then neither does right make might. Right alone produces almost nothing: nothing but conviction. And that we have. That the rest of the world is coming around to our point of view means as little to us now as it did then when we fought alone. But my President has been more courteous by saying at the UN: “We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for – the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This is the majesty of law.”
The present that we need and the future that we want is a peaceful South China Sea. The Philippines is committed to this for as long as it exists. For as long as nations abide by the rule of law and not of military might, the Award is the North Star that will keep us on course in the present, and that will point us back to the right direction in the future should we, in a moment of weakness or inaction, lose our way.