MANILA -- 2018 has been a "great year" full of "wins" for the Philippines, with the historic return of the Balangiga Bells a century after it was taken as war trophy by the United States, and the adoption of an international compact that benefits migrants worldwide, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.
"Basically it was a great year, we have a lot of wins, among others the Balangiga, the Global Compact on Migration and of course a lot of items were resolved," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella told the Philippine News Agency (PNA).
The official said the government have shown the international community that the justice system in the country works amid criticisms of its campaign against illegal drugs.
"There may be some rough edges but on the whole, we were also able to prove that the justice system in the Philippines works and those who are responsible are brought to trial," he said.
Before the international community, the agency has repeatedly underscored the government's commitment to uphold human rights as it pushes through with its war on drugs that adheres to a multi-pronged strategy including enforcement, rehabilitation, and reintegration.
Undersecretary for Policy Enrique Manalo noted that the Philippines' reelection at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for another term proves that it remains "a champion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged."
Last October, the country secured another term as a member of the UNHRC during the elections in New York, granting it another three-year term in the 47-member Council from 2019 to 2021.
Extending assistance abroad
One of the three pillars of the Philippine foreign policy is the promotion of the welfare and interests of overseas Filipinos (OFs). In this aspect, the Philippine government has been "consistent" throughout 2018, former Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja told the PNA.
"The DFA has been consistent in the promotion of welfare (of the OFs) which is correct because after all, the government exists for them, the Filipinos," he said.
The assistance-to-nationals (ATN) fund of the DFA was increased to PHP1 billion and the legal assistance fund (LAF) to PHP200 million under its 2018 budget.
This allowed the repatriation of thousands of overseas Filipinos in distress abroad and those at risk of being imprisoned due to illegal working status in their respective host countries.
One of the notable ATN and LAF beneficiaries was Pahima Alagasi, a household service worker in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who suffered maltreatment and labor abuse from her employer.
She left the country in March 2014 and sought refuge at the Embassy after sustaining burns inflicted by the mother of her employer. Her legal battle lasted for four years and returned home in April 2018.
Equally moving was the story of Menchie Romero, a former household worker in Kuwait, whose video chat with her sister went viral in the same month.
In the short clipping set in her employer's house, Menchie's face can be seen full of bruises, brimming with tears and begging her family for help.
The day it went viral, the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait coordinated with the local authorities, who demanded her employers to present the poor Filipina at the precinct.
The officials saw the physical abuse that Menchie suffered through the patches of green and purple blood-clot hues on her body.
Menchie's female employer reportedly hurt her several times using a pointed heel that cut her lips, scissors that pierced through her shoulders, a flat iron or cigarette that caused numerous burns, and even a dumbbell that fractured her bones. The Kuwait doctor that examined her described it as "a work done by a monster".
Menchie was confined in the hospital for more than a month of recovery and was able to return home last November. Her case is still pending before the court in Kuwait, she told the PNA.
Also in April 2018, a diplomatic crisis developed between Kuwait and the Philippines after the latter took into its refuge distressed Filipino household workers in the Gulf state.
The row was settled a month later after the landmark memorandum of agreement on labor was signed in May 2018.
The agreement has specific provisions to ensure the protection of rights, welfare, and well-being of Filipino workers in Kuwait, and has created a special police hotline, where workers can immediately contact in case of emergencies.
Apart from Kuwait, the country also signed bilateral agreements on employment with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the top destinations for overseas Filipino workers.
With efforts to champion Filipino welfare abroad, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Sarah Lou Arriola said the "human rights narrative" in the country was changed and the Philippines have been seen as a protector.
"I think that's why we had a very high vote at the (United Nations) Human Rights Council, it because we are seen as protectors."
'Masterly approach' in balancing ties
Aside from the administration's commitment to Filipinos abroad, Abella said President Rodrigo R. Duterte's goal to rebalance ties was translated well.
"Between the great powers, considering that we are a small power or a medium-sized power, he has been able to achieve a lot of good for the nation. At the end of the day, people are happy. You know there are some who would think otherwise but on the whole, I believe he was able to deliver what he has promised," he told the PNA.
Abella said the president has set out into a "difficult and challenging course" toward the mandated independent foreign policy "but he has done an extremely statesman-like, in terms of achievement, he has done a very masterly approach towards balancing relationships."
In November 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Manila for a state visit under the invitation of the chief executive.
His visit produced a multitude of bilateral agreements with the Philippines, including the memorandum of understanding on joint exploration in the South China Sea.
While some critics are apprehensive on the MOU's signing, Baja said "there is nothing to comment substantively" yet as the document is "some sort of exchange of views only."
"The challenge will come when they really sit down for the details of a possible exploration of resources there so again there are differing views among our experts and analysts. But as long as the arrangement does not violate the Constitution of the Philippines, it's okay, after all, whatever resources out there will be useless to us unless it's explored and exploited," he pointed out.
As the relations between China and the Philippines continues to improve, Washington and Manila's ties never lagged behind the progress.
With the return of the Balangiga Bells, the two nations' ties grew stronger, according to American Ambassador to the US Sung Kim.
Last May 2018, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea also met former US Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Harry Harris Jr. in Honolulu to discuss shared concerns on regional and international issues.
A month later, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano visited the US, meeting his counterparts to reaffirm the two nations’ partnership and security alliance.
Manila also strengthened engagements with Japan and Russia with new agreements signed in 2018. Japan continues its support to the country's economic and infrastructure projects.
Moscow, for its part, sought elevated cooperation with Manila on agriculture, trade, transportation, defense, security, and energy.
Change in DFA leadership
2018 also marked changes in the government, with the appointment of a new top diplomat.
Cayetano, in October, resigned from his post as DFA Secretary. The chief executive then appointed his former Philippine Permanent Representative to the UN Teodoro Locsin Jr. as the new Foreign Affairs chief.
Abella said the two DFA chiefs have different working styles but on the whole, the agency maintained its "clear directions."
On the handling of the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines maintains its nuanced diplomacy. The bilateral consultative mechanism, where both states can sit down and discuss the contentious issue, is still used.
This, as the Duterte administration actively pursues a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
Baja said the country is correct in continuing its talks with Beijing as long as it upholds what it gained at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
"Yes, we should continue with talking to China, to continue negotiations but after all is said and done, we must remember not to lose what we gained in the Hague," he noted.
In 2016, the international court's award invalidated China’s nine-dash lines, which lay claim on almost the entire South China Sea. The president temporarily shelved the ruling to allow peaceful settlement of the maritime row. (PNA)
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