Duterte backs out, taps Roque to face Carpio
MANILA, Philippines — The much-anticipated debate between President Rodrigo Duterte and retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio fizzled out before it could even begin.
The President on Friday backed out of the face-off he himself had proposed in an angry fit and instead tapped his spokesperson, Harry Roque, to represent him in the debate on the country’s maritime dispute with China and the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that favored the Philippines and rejected Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
“The President had been ready for the debate but last night, he accepted the advice of several members of his Cabinet, including Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea,” Roque said at a briefing.
Carpio, who readily accepted the President’s challenge on Wednesday, said he was prepared to face anyone.
“I am ready to debate with the President or with anyone he may designate on the factual accuracy and adverse legal implications to the Philippines of the President’s repeated claim that ‘China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea’,” the retired magistrate said on Friday.
“Yes,” he told the Inquirer when asked if he had anticipated the President’s decision to back out.
Roque said the President withdrew after Cabinet members advised him that having him in the debate would not benefit the Filipino people and his pronouncements there would affect government policy.
The Cabinet members also thought it would not be fair for the President to face off with Carpio who, Roque said, is now just an ordinary lawyer.
“The President could not take back what he would say during the debate. This is why we have something called executive privilege, which refers to matters that should not be made public so that the President could make the correct, if not necessarily popular, decisions,” Roque said.
More important things
“It would compromise these kinds of information if the President would agree and push through with the debate with former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio,” he added.
Roque, a lawyer and former professor in international law at the University of the Philippines, said he had accepted Duterte’s directive for him to be one who would face Carpio.
He said it would be “a pleasure” to debate with Carpio and that former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario—another staunch critic of the President’s stance toward China’s actions in the disputed waters—could join in.
“The President said that if Antonio Carpio would agree, the debate would continue because it was important for the ideas to be heard so that the people could make their own conclusion,” Roque said. “The Philippine Bar Association (which has offered to host the debate) should just say when and where the debate would take place, and I would show up.”
Public disappointment with the President’s withdrawal quickly registered online, with #Carpio and #DuterteDuwag becoming the top trending Twitter topics in the country on Friday. For Sen. Koko Pimentel, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, having a Duterte-Carpio confrontation was uncalled for.
“A formal public debate is not necessary because, one, it will not settle anything; two, it will only give to the entire world the impression that we are divided on the issue (when in reality we may not be),” Pimentel said in a message to reporters.
‘Scrap of paper’
“Also, the Filipino people who are the potential and supposed to be the primary audience to the debate may be interested in some other things more important to them like food on the table, a reliable and decent source of income or livelihood, day-to-day peace and order, etc.,” Pimentel said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said a public debate was always healthy in a democratic environment “as long as it is limited to the issue at hand and does not go down to gutter level.”
“I could almost imagine the anticipated excitement on the part of the Chinese while watching all these developments as they continue to be busy surveying more shoals within our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) that they can build more garrisons to pursue their expansionist agenda in the West Philippine Sea,” Lacson said.
Duterte challenged Carpio to a debate during a televised address on Wednesday night, when he again lambasted Carpio and Del Rosario for pressuring him to enforce the 2016 arbitral award against China, which he then described as “a mere scrap of paper.”
“This Carpio, he keeps writing about the decision but it’s all for his own mind. He’s stupid [‘ugok’]. So you were a Supreme Court justice? We’re both lawyers. You want us to debate?,” the President said.
Carpio, now an Inquirer columnist who has gone on lecture tours explaining the maritime dispute and the historic ruling, accepted the President’s challenge.
In his latest tirades, Mr. Duterte said Carpio and Del Rosario should be investigated —and the latter “hanged”—for causing the country to lose Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to China during the term of then-President Benigno S. Aquino III.
Duterte said he would ask Carpio who ordered the pullout of Philippine ships from the shoal during a standoff with China in 2012 and what actions were taken after the withdrawal.
The President said he would also ask how the arbitral tribunal’s ruling could possibly be enforced.
But Carpio said the debate should not dwell on whose administration should be blamed for the loss of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef to China, saying such exercise would be pointless.
“Further, there is no factual or legal dispute that China seized Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef in violation of international law,” he said.
“I will not engage in a useless exercise that will only detract the public’s interest on the vital outstanding issues on the West Philippines Sea, like the President’s continuing false claim that ‘China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea,’” Carpio said.
—With a report from DJ Yap
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