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The assertion by President Rodrigo Duterte in a pre-recorded maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly upholding the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), also referred to as the South China Sea, is a welcome and long-sought presidential action, albeit belated and must be enforced.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) of the United Nations ruled four years ago in July 2016 that parts of the disputed marine resources belong to the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as it junked China’s spurious claims.

In deciding for the Philippines, the PCA found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration; (b) constructing artificial islands; and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. 

Duterte’s affirmation of the Philippines’ arbitral victory must not remain a verbal bubble but needs to be concretized in an enforcement action with the backing of the United Nations and the support of multilateral powers. 

It appears embarrassing that Duterte’s affirmation of the Philippines’ arbitral victory came only on the heels of leading world powers like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia condemning China’s continuing aggression and incursion in the West Philippine Sea even as they support the PCA  decision in favor of the Philippines. 

A multilateral action, which has been long suggested to Duterte in lieu of his preference for an uneven bilateral negotiation with China, is indeed imperative to enforce the award and pressure China to respect the arbitral ruling.

However, this welcome assertion by Duterte should neither sweep under the rug his administration’s escalating violations of human rights nor foreclose the impending UN-sponsored inquiry on the brutal transgressions which are of global concerns.