Uphold international law in Code of Conduct

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

Just over a year ago, the Philippines was in a position to celebrate a momentous victory that has made its mark in international history and represents an important contribution by our country to the clarity of our rights and the rule of international law. To mark the first anniversary of that victory, the Stratbase ADR Institute organized a forum, “The Framework Code of Conduct, One Year After Arbitration,” where we were joined by distinguished experts to discuss possible steps for our diplomacy.

The Hague ruling is indelible and irreversible. The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration is final in character. Despite the efforts of some quarters to deride the ruling and its importance, no actor — individual or country — can reopen what has been adjudicated in the arbitration process. The law is the law, the ruling is the ruling, and what is left for the Philippines and its partners is to enforce it and not back away from it.

While the court’s ruling did not provide a final solution to the disputes and tensions in the South China Sea, it benefited all members of the region in clarifying the scope of the problem at hand. It bears emphasis that the ruling made clear that all maritime entitlements should be governed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and that any alleged right not anchored on Unclos should be denied. For the Philippines, the benefits were obvious in the validation of our exclusive economic zone. Now, in having a better idea of what is ours, we can better advocate for our interests.

Upholding our principles in building the Code of Conduct. The process of bringing the law to bear on the South China Sea disputes has been long in coming. Asean moved in this direction in 2002, when it formulated the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or the DOC. The DOC was meant to be a precursor to a legally binding Code of Conduct between the parties — the framework of which is being readied this year, 15 years afterward.

One reason for our region to have moved in this direction is the importance of international law to our relatively small states. International law is the great equalizer: It levels the playing field between the militarily and economically powerful and those that are less so. In taking this option, the Philippines took an important step in strengthening the rule of international law, or the rules-based framework, in our region.

For all the benefit that we have received from the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, we should be at the forefront of urging our region to unite in reaffirming the ruling’s importance and status as an integral part of the body of international law. For this reason, we believe that the ruling should be recognized in the Code of Conduct when it is negotiated. After all, as we have repeatedly advocated, no state should be allowed to cherry-pick when to uphold the law and when to disregard it.

As I pointed out just days after the ruling was released last year, the Philippines should continue to actively present its case as a legal precedent for Asean claimant-states to further clarify their respective maritime entitlements and boundaries, as well as align their respective domestic policies with Unclos provisions. The award should not be seen as merely beneficial to the interest of the Philippines, but to all claimants in the South China Sea with common interests in freedom of navigation for trade and other legitimate activities.

Maintaining momentum. Learning from history, the Philippines as a small power cannot rely only on the magnanimity of others. We need to strengthen our partnerships with countries with whom we share interests in the preservation of Unclos. By reaffirming the arbitral tribunal’s award and working toward its full and effective implementation, we pave the way for the peaceful resolution of the disputes using a mutually agreeable standard. Moreover, having led the charge, the Philippines must continue to be a bright spot in the promotion of international law in our region.

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