Former President Benigno S. Aquino III, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, former Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, and former Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert F. del Rosario were conferred the 2021 Ka Pepe Diokno Human Rights Award for their work in asserting the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea in an online ceremony held on Facebook Live last Friday, February 26.
It was during Aquino’s term in office that he spearheaded a case against China on the disputed “nine-dash” demarcation line, while Carpio and Del Rosario were key members of the delegation that handled the arbitration case before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013. The latter two, along with Carpio-Morales, are currently behind a complaint before the International Criminal Court against Chinese President Xi Jinping for crimes against humanity in the contested region.
Defending sovereignty over troubled waters
In their responses, the awardees recounted the arbitral tribunal and how the fight for the West Philippine Sea adhered to Ka Pepe Diokno’s advocacy toward self-determination and human dignity for the Filipino people.
DLSU College of Law Dean Virgilio De Los Reyes, who read Aquino III’s statement on the latter’s behalf amid his absence, began by recalling the discussions between Aquino III’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino, and Chinese statesman Deng Xiaoping on the South China Sea 30 years ago. From then on, the younger Aquino wrote, China has continued to encroach on the disputed waters.
During Aquino III’s incumbency, he argued that China became more aggressive, persecuting Filipino fishermen and illegally poaching in the said waters, but it was the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012 that he described as “the last straw that pushed us over the edge.”
A year later, the Philippines pursued the arbitral tribunal with the UNCLOS.
All of the awardees acknowledged the difficulties of standing up against a formidable foreign power that is China. But, as Carpio asserted, “Without sovereignty and sovereign rights, there will be no Philippine state.” Carpio-Morales equated the lack of concern in territorial affairs to indifference toward “the plight of the Filipino fishermen whose lives were in peril in the West Philippine Sea.”
While the international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, the challenge of enforcing that ruling continues today. Despite this, del Rosario maintained that winning the case in an international court has allowed the country to take “a significant step toward upholding the rule of law and defending what is rightfully ours in the face of an unlawful aggression by a foreign power.”
Honoring the father of human rights
In his opening address, University Chancellor Br. Bernard Oca FSC highlighted the role of human rights in today’s political climate, recognizing Ka Pepe Diokno as “one of the finest Lasallian alumni who chose to dedicate his life to public service.” The bestowal of the award, he added, affirms the Filipino’s right and responsibility to the country’s future.
Meanwhile, DLSU President Br. Raymundo Suplido FSC captured Ka Pepe Diokno’s view of nationalism by quoting the late lawyer’s book, A Nation for Our Children, “Philippine nationalism is more important than patriotism.” Sovereignty, he explained, does not rest within the Philippine legislature nor the President who merely exerts power authorized by the Constitution but within the Filipino people.
Speaking on behalf of the Diokno family, Maria Serena Diokno, former chair of the National Historical Commission (NHC), commented that it might seem odd to pursue the awarding ceremony amid the pandemic, but “with all the loss and grief, our economy sinking deeper, this indeed seem like dark times…we must not forget that even before the pandemic, we have seen some kind of epidemic of abuse and tyranny.”
The former NHC chair remembered her father as an “incurable optimist” who does not waiver even in challenging times, acknowledging how the awardees share a similar disposition. “Our family hopes that our awardees will continue to serve as an inspiration to many Filipinos,” she declared, “as a guide to the path that we must now take not only to survive but also to assert the sovereignty of our nation.”