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Drilon: Chinese vessel abandonment of Filipino crew, a violation of UNCLOS provision

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Thursday the Chinese vessel’s abandonment of the 22 Filipino crew of the boat it reportedly hit and eventually sank was a violation of state’s duty to rescue under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Because of this, Drilon, a former justice secretary, said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should file a diplomatic protest against China.

“I urge the DFA to file a diplomatic protest immediately. This incident demands strong and immediate action. We cannot let this incident pass. No self-respecting nation will allow that,” he said in a press statement.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. earlier said he has already filed a diplomatic protest on the incident.

UNCLOS provision

In his statement, Drilon said the Philippine government and the Filipino people “should call out China for not honoring its obligations to rescue any person in distress at sea or in danger of being lost at sea” in accordance with international laws and treaties.

Drilon said under Article 98 of the UNCLOS, every state is required to render assistance to any person in distress or in danger of being lost at sea.

Article 98 (1) of UNCLOS states that: “Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to 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; (c) 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.”

Both China and the Philippines are signatories to the treaty.

The senator added that under the UNCLOS, it is the duty of the state to oblige masters of vessels flying their flag to follow the provision; therefore, both State-owned vessels and private vessels flying the State’s flag are mandated to render assistance to people in distress at sea.

He said the duty to rescue individuals applies without distinction and with no regard to the nationality and status of the person/s in need of rescue at sea.

He further said the status or activity in which the individual/s needing rescue is/are engaged is irrelevant.

Drilon said that failure to act on duty to rescue gives rise to state responsibility. He added that the only exception under the UNCLOS is that when it would endanger the rescuing vessel.

He said that such duty is so critical that it is even imposed during wartime, adding that the Chinese vessel’s action is deplorable and can no way be justified.

It is a Vietnamese vessel that rescued the distressed Filipino fishermen.

“What do you call a friend who abandons a friend in times of need?” Drilon asked.

For his part, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, who will likely head the Senate foreign relations committee in the 18th Congress, said under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), there is a general obligation to proceed to the assistance of ships in distress. 

“Logic dictates that such duty becomes more pronounced if it is your ship that caused the distress.  In this case, there was a total breach of that duty to help,” he said in a press statement. “No matter who was at fault, the crew of a sinking ship must never be abandoned by an able ship. The rescue of all persons in distress at sea is not only an obligation under international maritime law, it is also a matter of humanitarian duty.” 

Pimentel said the crew of the Vietnamese vessel that assisted the distressed Filipinos to safety must be commended for responding to the call of duty.

Senator Richard Gordon also said the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea or SOLAS and Article 98 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS mandate vessels, especially 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.

“The Chinese crew violated these laws. I hope anybody in the West Philippine Sea or anywhere in the world would understand that there are responsibilities by all peoples for those who are in peril of the sea,” he said in a separate press statement.

He added the Philippine Coast Guard should always be in position in that area. “We must have Coast Guard assets there to protect our fishermen.” 

Meanwhile, Senator Grace Poe said it is China who should initiate the investigation and filing of charges against the Chinese vessel that reportedly hit the Filipino boat.

She said the administration should ask the Chinese government to conduct the probe.

“Siguro, ang puwede ring gawin ng ating gobyerno ay manawagan din sa ating mga diumanong kaibigan sa China, at sabihing dapat kasuhan ninyo ‘yan dahil ‘yan ay inyong mga mamamayan. Kung ayaw ninyong sabihin na kami’y nanghihimasok, bakit hindi kayo kumilos,” she told reporters.

“Para patunayan na talagang tapat ang ating pagkakaibigan sa China, siguro, mismong ang bansa nila ang dapat magsampa ng kaso doon sa mga gumawa na ‘yon. Para hindi panghihimasok, sila mismo ang magbigay ng tamang parusa,” she added.

She said the Chinese crew might think that the Philippine government is fine with the incident. “Kasi akalain niyo, parang pinabayaan nilang mamatay doon ang ating mga mangingisda, iniwan na lang nila, at iba pang bansa, ang Vietnam pa ang sumaklolo sa kanila.”

She further said the committees on foreign relations and national defense should conduct a probe on the incident when the 18th Congress starts on July 22.

“‘Yung mga chairman ng committee na ‘yon ang dapat magpatawag na ng pagdinig ukol dito kasi kung papabayaan natin na gawin nila ‘yan sa atin, hindi tayo kikibo, panay na panay nilang gagawin ‘yan. Hindi sila matatakot, e kung umalma man lang tayo kahit kaunti, medyo sana naman, mangilag sila. Parang pamimirata na rin ang ginagawa nila,” she said. — RSJ, GMA News