By Genalyn Kabiling
BANGKOK — The Philippines has agreed to conduct a joint and impartial investigation with China to determine the truth and accountability on the Recto Bank incident.
President Duterte has welcomed China’s proposed joint inquiry and suggested the creation of a committee to probe the incident where 22 fishermen were abandoned at sea after their vessels were hit by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank to reach a “satisfactory closure,” according to Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo.
Panelo made the announcement a few hours after President Duterte arrived in Thailand to attend the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Duterte is on his third visit to Thailand since he assumed office in 2016.
“The Palace wishes to inform our people that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte welcomes and accepts the offer of the Chinese Government to conduct a joint investigation to determine what really transpired in Recto Bank and find a satisfactory closure to this episode,” Panelo said in a statement.
“To this end, the President wants the creation of a joint investigating committee that shall be composed of three groups of highly qualified and competent individuals, with Philippines and China having one representative each, and a third member coming from a neutral country,” he said.
He recognized that the duty of seafarers to rescue those at peril in the sea was “a well entrenched principle of international law, maritime law, and humanitarian law.”
“The basic dictates of justice demand a full account of the events that ultimately led to the abandonment of our 22 distressed firshermen in the middle of the sea and accountability of those at fault,” he said.
Panelo notes that a joint investigation was prudent compared to separate inquiries conducted by the Philippines and China to prevent allegations of bias.
“Having separate investigations by the two countries may raise speculation and accusation of bias. Such circumstance will put any finding by any side open to question and place the entire issue in a confused state,” he said.
“On the other hand, a joint and impartial investigation will not only promote the expedient resolution of the issue, it will also be in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes,” he added.
Despite the government’s consent to a joint probe on the Recto Bank incident, Panelo made clear that the government remains committed to uphold the country’s sovereignty and seek justice for the fishermen affected by the allision of the sea vessels.
“We are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end,” he said.
Before leaving Manila for his Thailand journey, the President insisted that the incident involving a Filipino fishing boat and a Chinese ship in the West Philippine Se was not an attack on the country’s sovereignty.
Duterte, who has described the Recto Bank development as a little maritime accident, claimed there was no need to wage war or raise a “convoluted argument” over the incident.
“It is not an attack on our sovereignty. Malayo ‘yan,” said in a speech during the oath-taking of his son Davao City Rep.-elect Paolo Duterte.
“Sovereignty is the republic. ‘Pag inatake mo ‘yan, then there’s going to be a war,” said Duterte who has ruled our deploying the Navy ships following the sinking of the Filipino boat.
He maintained that it was just a “maritime incident or accident” similar to a road collision.
“It is not a confrontation of armed men and machines or ships. Wala nga lang namatay [No one died],” he said.
He agreed that the incident must be investigated by the Coast Guard or Marine Board of Inquiry.