It was a tough year for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as it struggled to deal with a host of diplomatic issues ranging from piracy in Somalia and a territorial spat with Taiwan to defending the country’s human rights record.
The DFA, through the Philippine embassies abroad, worked for the release and return to the Philippines of 117 Filipino seafarers held hostage in Somalia. Efforts are underway to secure the release of the remaining 91 sailors.
DFA Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Esteban Conejos Jr. said the government is having a hard time monitoring the movement of Filipino seafarers because their vessels frequently pass through Somali waters, particularly the Gulf of Aden, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in September declared the Gulf of Aden a “risk zone” which Filipino seamen may opt to avoid.
The POEA also approved the doubling of the hazard pay of Filipino seamen whose ships pass the high-risk route.
The Philippines welcomed on Dec. 17 a United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing states to use land-based operations in Somalia against pirates.
A military approach to piracy had been opposed by Conejos, citing the dangers it posed to the lives of Filipino sailors still in pirates’ hands.
In February, the Philippines assailed Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian for visiting Ligao Island in the Kalayaan Group, South China Sea, characterizing the visit as “irresponsible.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said the development worked against the joint efforts by claimant countries in the South China Sea “to achieve peace and stability in the region in accordance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”
The trip was aimed at drumming up support for Frank Hsieh, then ruling independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate in the election.
Taiwan’s top official in the Philippines and new Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) Representative Donald Lee said Taiwan officials’ visit to the Spratlys would continue.
Human rights record defended
Secretary Romulo said in April the Philippines’ being reelected as vice chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council was proof of the international community’s growing confidence in the country.
The Philippines defended its human rights record before the council, saying human rights is at the forefront of the government’s foreign policy.
The government also reported to the UN that killings of activists and members of the media have dramatically declined since 2006.
The government told the UN it had set in place several measures to address unexplained killings, including better coordination between police and the prosecution, strengthening laws on witness protection, and the establishment of new human rights offices within the armed forces and the national police force.
But Human Rights Watch said these measures accomplished little and that they might have been intended to merely deflect domestic and international criticism.
Appeals for pardon
The DFA also had to monitor and negotiate death penalty cases involving Philippine nationals abroad. Since 2006, the DFA has actively monitored 68 death penalty cases. Through active negotiations, 25 death sentences have been commuted.
Of those 25, 11 Filipinos on death row have been released and sent back to the Philippines.
In June, the DFA explained that it appealed to the Emir of Kuwait for the commutation of the death sentence on May Vecina because the sentence was final and executory.
The DFA said the death verdicts on workers Jakatia Mandon Pawa and Bienvenido De Vera Espino are still in the Court of Appeals of Kuwait.
There is also an appeal to overturn the death sentence on another Filipina in Taiwan who was convicted of murder and robbery.
It was the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) which appealed on behalf of Nemencia Armia, who was sentenced to death for robbing and killing a female Taiwanese national on Sept. 12, 2007.
The DFA also promised legal aid to a Filipina allegedly raped by a US soldier in Okinawa in February.
In July, the US Army charged the serviceman, Specialist Ronald Edward Hopstock Jr., with rape under section 120 of the US Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Jesus Yabes of the DFA Office of Middle East and African Affairs admitted that a travel ban to Iraq did not prevent Filipino workers from working in the war-torn county.
Iraq announced on Nov. 14 that it needed at least 10,000 foreign workers, mostly for reconstruction and infrastructure projects, for next year in Northern Iraq.
It expressed optimism that the Philippine government would finally lift the deployment ban.
Charge d’Affaires Adel Mawlood Hamoudi Al-Hakimh said there are around 15,000 Filipinos presently working in Iraq, mostly hired by American companies.
The DFA said Filipino workers sought jobs in Iraq mostly through the Internet, hence government’s difficulty in monitoring or stopping them.
The Philippine government implemented a travel ban to Iraq following the abduction of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz in 2004.
In August, Secretary Romulo squelched speculations that the postponement of the visit of Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim to the Philippines was an offshoot of the botched signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the Moro Islamic liberation Front (MILF).
Romulo said the visit was postponed because of “internal issues” like the forthcoming elections in Malaysia and the celebration of Ramadan the following month.
Malaysia announced last month the pullout of its peace monitors in Mindanao as it expressed disappointment over the lack of progress in the talks between the government and the MILF.
Foreign Minister Rais Yatim stressed that “Malaysia remains supportive of the peace process and hopes that both sides opt for dialogue and negotiations in bringing about a peaceful solution in Mindanao.”
It was under the Philippines’ chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that drafting of the historic ASEAN Charter began. The ASEAN Charter became effective last Dec. 15.
The Charter includes, in particular, a provision on the creation of a Human Rights Body which the Philippines has consistently advocated.
No help for arrested fugitives
The Philippine Embassy in the US assured arrested fugitives former police officers Cesar Mancao and Glenn Dumlao that their rights would be protected but said no legal assistance would be extended to them.
A DFA official, who asked not to be named, said Mancao and Dumlao would not receive legal assistance from the embassy because the Philippine government was the requesting party for their extradition.
The two were implicated in the murders of publicist Bubby Dacer and his driver.
The Philippines nearly came to diplomatic blows with Thailand following a statement from Deputy Presidential Spokesman Anthony Golez and Sen. Richard Gordon insinuating that protest actions in Bangkok that ended in the ouster of its prime minister showed the Thais’ lack of political maturity.
At a press conference on Dec. 3, Thailand Ambassador Kulkumut Singhara Na Ayudhaya said the protest actions indicated that the Thais were free to exercise their political rights.
“I believe the statements made by Mr. Golez and Senator Gordon do not positively contribute to the good and lasting relations between our two countries and people,” he told reporters.
However, he said that he was not filing a diplomatic protest with the DFA.
Thailand is the current ASEAN chair.
Corruption imperils aid
The US Embassy in Manila clarified that the Philippines passed 14 of the 17 indicators for eligibility for the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Compact program but failed on the corruption indicator.
The Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) Board agreed during its meeting that the Philippines remained eligible for developing a compact proposal, but emphasized that MCC would not sign a compact until the country passed the indicator criteria on corruption.
The Board called on the Philippine government to intensify its efforts to fight corruption.
Secretary Romulo defended the Philippines’ ranking for eligibility for the MCA, saying Washington knew the real figures and the country failed in the three indicators because the median was changed and increased.–Pia Lee-Brago, Philippine Star