DFA chief: 'It is a felony to abandon people in distress'

NEW YORK. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. brings up the Recto Bank incident during the 29th Meeting of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on June 17, 2019. (Photo from Teddy Locsin Jr. Twitter)

DEPARTMENT of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has brought up the Recto Bank incident before a United Nations (UN) body, saying it is a "cause for concern".

In his speech during the 29th Meeting of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on June 17, Locsin said the "rescue of persons in distress is a universally recognized obligation of people and governments."

"In the 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. While no sanction is available in international law, it should be a cause of some concern," he said, after relating the Recto Bank incident.

Locsin cited three international treaties that oblige each member state of the UN and of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to "pay, not just lip service to these conventions, but to observe them in real life-and-death situations."

He cited Article 98 of UNCLOS, which explicitly provides for the “duty to render assistance”. UNCLOS was signed in 1982, with the Philippines as one of the signatories.

This duty of the master of a ship is three-fold: render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him; and after a collision, to render assistance to the other ship, its crew and its passengers and, where possible, to inform the other ship of the name of his own ship, its port of registry and the nearest port at which it will call.

Aside from UNCLOS, the IMO International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the IMO Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue also provide this imperative.

It was on the basis on UNCLOS that the Philippines filed a complaint before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to clarify the legal situation in the South China Sea, Locsin said.

The arbitral tribunal ruled on July 12, 2016 that there was "no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’."

The tribunal said that since certain areas of the South China Sea are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, China had "violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone 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."

Read Permanent Court of Arbitration decision here.

China has repeatedly said it would not honor the tribunal's decision.

At the UNCLOS meeting, Locsin related how Filipino fishing boat F/B Gemver sank after it was hit by a Chinese vessel on June 9, 2019.

The Filipino boat was anchored near the Recto Bank in Palawan, which is within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, Locsin said.

Instead of rescuing the 22 Filipino fishermen, the Chinese immediately left the area. The Filipinos were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen nearby.

China has admitted that a light purse seine boat from Guangdong was involved in the incident, but denied that it was a "hit-and-run" case.

China said the Chinese vessel was besieged by 7 to 8 Filipino boats and accidentally hit F/B Gemver while trying to "evacuate." The Chinese crew did not rescue the Filipinos because they were afraid they would be besieged again.

"The incident, to put it diplomatically, highlights the moral and possibly legal —though one wouldn’t wager on it — imperative of coming to the rescue of persons in distress at sea," Locsin said. (MVI/SunStar Philippines)


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