‘Abandoning people in distress is a felony’
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has brought to the attention of the United Nations the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat after it was hit by a Chinese vessel, with the distressed fishermen abandoned in the water for hours on June 9 near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
Speaking at the 25th anniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the “duty to render assistance” is enshrined in international law and in the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the IMO Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.
“The 22 Filipino crew were left in the water until a Vietnamese vessel took them on board. We are eternally grateful, we are eternally in debt to our strategic partner, Vietnam, for this act of mercy and decency,” Locsin said in a speech delivered Monday night at UN headquarters in New York, hours after President Duterte downplayed the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat.
After being mum on the issue for days, Duterte emerged at the 121st anniversary of the Philippine Navy to dismiss the incident as a “little maritime accident” and to stress the need for an investigation and to give China the opportunity to explain its side.
Locsin pointed out that it is the obligation of every member-state of the UN and of the IMO to pay not just lip service to these conventions but to “observe them in real life-and-death situations.”
“The rescue of persons in distress is a universally recognized obligation of people and governments; and in civil law and, maybe even in common law, it is a felony to abandon people in distress, especially when we cause that distress; and more so when it is no bother at all to save them at no risk to oneself,” Locsin said.
“While no sanction is available in international law, it should be a cause of some concern,” he added.
The Philippines was one of the original signatories to UNCLOS in 1982. It ratified the convention in 1984.
In his message to the UN, Locsin said the Philippines has “strongly supported and upheld UNCLOS because it provides a comprehensive legal regime for the oceans and the seas.”
As the “constitution of the oceans,” UNCLOS affirms the rule of law in maritime space, he said.
“Whether international law can be enforced is another matter. And it doesn’t help that parties with the strength to enforce it – and who have invoked a lot the need for it – have not joined it,” Locsin said, referring apparently to the United States.
The Philippines, he said, “on the basis of UNCLOS, filed a carefully crafted and successful complaint at The Hague to clarify the legal situation in the South China Sea; to remove the confusion or the pretext of confusion on the part of those violating it.”
He was referring to the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidating China’s massive South China Sea claim and reaffirming the Philippines’ own maritime entitlements.
Locsin said on Saturday he had authorized the Philippine embassy in the United Kingdom to “appeal” to the London-based IMO regarding the Recto Bank incident.
“I authorized London PE to appeal to IMO in London,” Locsin said in a tweet.
In a statement at the 101st Session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the IMO, the Philippines noted how the Filipino crew “were callously abandoned to the elements on the rough seas and would have perished” if a Vietnamese vessel did not rescue them.
Local laws violated
Meanwhile, a University of the Philippines expert in maritime affairs said the Chinese involved in the Recto Bank incident may have also violated local laws, possibly against poaching.
Jay Batongbacal, director of UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, noted that the poaching in Philippine waters is classified as a crime under the 1987 Constitution and Republic Act 8550 or the Fisheries Code.
He also supported Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who earlier said that the Chinese mariners who figured in the incident had violated UNCLOS.
“China expressly admitted in their press statement through the Chinese embassy that their vessel was engaged in purse seine fishing operation on Reed Bank, which is within our exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS and as per 2016 Philippines v. China arbitration award,” Batongbacal wrote on Facebook.
“That’s clear and obvious an UNCLOS violation as you can get… There is no prematurity here because China itself expressly admitted it without prodding from the Philippines,” he added, responding to an earlier statement of presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo that it was premature to claim that China violated the UNCLOS.
Batongbacal said Panelo may be referring to violations of other conventions, such as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the customary international law on rendering assistance to vessels and persons in distress and on good seamanship.
“These are what Secretary Panelo refers to; these are different violations from those under UNCLOS. They are obligations of the Chinese vessel and crew, which China in turn is obliged to enforce by conducting a proper and transparent investigation and meting out sanctions,” he added.
In a separate post, Batongbacal also slammed those who deny that the Philippine fishing boat Gem-Vir 1 sank after it was rammed by the Chinese vessel.
“A boat is considered lost when it can no longer carry out its purpose of conveying its cargo or passengers. It is sunk when it is submerged, but it doesn’t have to go all the way down to the bottom of the deep blue sea and be completely or physically lost,” he said.
The UP professor noted that the loss of the tail-end of the boat meant losing its rudder and propeller, leaving it as “useful as a floating piece of wreckage.”
“A vessel in such condition (or whatever remains of it) can be recovered as long as it is still floating at least, or has settled in waters shallow enough for the vessel to be still recovered. This is called maritime salvage,” he said.
He noted that salvaging the sunken boat may minimize the cost for the owners as it would be better than building a new boat.
“The picture of the F/B Gem-Vir 1’s broken tail above water indicates that the vessel has been re-floated, made lighter by removal of cargo or other non-essential parts, and temporarily repaired to keep it from sinking again, at least long enough to get back to port,” Batongbacal added. – With Janvic Mateo