Hit-and-run on the high seas
Was it an accidental collision between two moving objects? An “allision”—the “bumping of two vessels one of which was stationary,” as Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. put it in a tweet? Or a case of outright ramming—because, according to former Philippine Navy chief Alexander Pama, the Filipino fishing boat, the F/B Gimver 1, was anchored near Recto Bank when it figured in an accident with a Chinese vessel on the evening of June 9, sinking the Filipino boat and throwing its 22 crewmen overboard? (The Filipino fishermen were eventually rescued by a Vietnamese boat.)
Locsin is having none of Pama’s dire characterization of the incident just yet. “Ramming,” he said in the same tweet, “is another thing altogether requiring proof of intentionality.” Of course, the chief diplomat also had to throw in his usual quota of bile and snark directed at fellow citizens enraged over the incident: “So far as I know none of us is a mind reader not least because some of us have no mind with which to read another.”
Mind reading, though, is not necessary to judge the actions of the Chinese vessel after the incident. The exact circumstances of the event should be up for determination by a future investigation. But, at this point, there is no sailing around this damnable fact: The Chinese ship acted reprehensibly—in a “contemptible and condemnable” manner, as Locsin did say—when it abandoned the 22 Filipino fishermen “to the mercy of the elements.”
Those last words are from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who, in a gesture that spoke volumes, released a statement under his name on June 12, the Philippines’ Independence Day, “condemning in the strongest terms” the Chinese vessel “for immediately leaving the scene of the incident.” Such behavior “is not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people,” said Lorenzana.
International maritime law is clear on the obligations of any vessel that encounters any person in distress at sea. Daniel Shepherd, a crew member of Sea-Watch, the German aid group that figured prominently in the rescue of migrants during the Mediterranean refugee crisis, explained the law in a May 2015 post in The Maritime Executive:
“Article 98 (1) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) requires masters of vessels sailing under the flag of signatory States to render assistance to those in distress at sea. It is primarily a State duty fulfilled by the master of the vessel. The master is freed from this requirement only in circumstances where the assisting vessel, the crew or the passengers on board would be seriously endangered as a result of rendering assistance to those in distress.
“Other international conventions iterate this requirement and the attendant limitation. Regulation V/33 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 (SOLAS) imposes an obligation on masters of vessels who are in a position to provide assistance to do so. Further, Chapter 2.1.10 of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue 1979 (SAR) obliges States Party to the Convention to ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress at sea, ‘regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found.’
“Finally, the position at treaty law with respect to the duty to render assistance is a general reflection of customary international maritime law. This means that masters of vessels flying the flag of non-signatory States are also required to render assistance where safe and able to do so.
“The law is therefore clear. States, both signatories and non-signatories to the above conventions, are duty bound to ensure those in distress at sea are rendered assistance on a non-discriminatory basis. Whether vessels sailing under their flag operate in either a private or public capacity, the requirements incumbent upon the masters of the vessels are the same.”
Is China a signatory to Unclos? It is. Those Chinese crewmen knew the first and most sacred duty of seafaring, which is to provide aid to fellow human beings in distress at sea. That they chose to engage instead in what amounted to a hit-and-run on the high seas indicates the opposite intent: They wanted to leave the Filipino fishermen in distress. That is barbaric, despicable, unacceptable behavior.
What will the Beijing-loving President say? Malacañang has called on China to sanction the hit-and-run vessel, but tellingly, as of this writing, nearly 24 hours after Lorenzana’s report to the nation, the customarily pugnacious Mr. Duterte has himself not said a word about the matter.
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